How Would You Describe A Kangaroo?
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
If we now know that tyrannosaurus rex had feathers, why do modern day toys still portray it with scales? One of many questions thrown up by a visit to Strange Creatures, a new exhibition at Grant Museum.
The centrepiece is George Stubbs' painting of a kangaroo, the first known illustration of an Australian animal by a western painter. It's on loan from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which bought it in 2013 to prevent it from leaving the UK. What's most impressive about the painting is that Stubbs had never seen a kangaroo in the flesh — his depiction is based entirely on notes and a sketch brought back from Captain Cook's exploration of Australia in 1770. Under the circumstances, Stubbs did a pretty decent job.
This, explains exhibition curator Jack Ashby, is the starting point of Strange Creatures — which uses art, taxidermy, and even toys to show the difficulties of portraying new species of animals to those who had never seen one — a zoological Chinese whispers, if you will.
A rhino wearing Warcraft-style armour, a lion with a human face and an elephant with a whole village of people on its back all come under scrutiny. If tomfoolery is your game, learn how sailors used to use dried-up ray bodies to trick the public into believing they had found a new species of dragon on their travels.
The issue of introducing a new species to the world is not a problem relegated to the pre-camera era. The exhibition covers right up to 2013, when the olinguito was discovered. The giving of soft toy olinguitos to journalists at the discovery press conference resulted in descriptions of the creature as a "bear-cat" and "teddy-bear like". Judge the accuracy of that description for yourself.
The exhibition is spread out among the regular exhibits of the Grant Museum, giving visitors a chance to ponder the many questions it raises as they go. In 200 years time, will people be laughing at the things we take for scientific fact today? A mixture of history, art and science makes Strange Creatures appealing to all — and a case full of dinosaur toys is bound to raise the interest of any budding young zoologist.
Last Updated 19 March 2015