Today I’ve been to the Natural History Museum to see the ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature’ exhibition. It was incredibly interesting to see creatures that inspiration may have come from in real life and how some fantasy creatures were thought to be real in the not too distant past and why that might be.
There were props from the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films alongside actual historical artefacts including books, skeletons, and replicas. It’s worth seeing for any Wizarding World fan and for anyone who is interested in fantasy creatures and their origins as the exhibition does go into creatures that we know about today that exhibit some of the same characteristics or that Rowling and the filmmakers could have drawn inspiration from in designing their own creatures.
One of the objects that I found the creepiest was this mermaid. It’s known as the Buxton Mermaid, lent to the exhibition by Derbyshire County Council, and Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, date unknown. She is mummified and may have held a comb and mirror to brush her hair at one point. The maker of this remains a mystery but sailors were sometimes known to keep them as lucky charms or exhibit them. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire the mermaids are part of the second Triwizard task where the four champions have to rescue something that has been taken from them. The chief merman speak to Professor Dumbledore after the task to say that Harry was first to the hostages but was determined to rescue them all, not just his, demonstrating moral fibre.
There was a beautiful book called ‘The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents’ by Edward Topsell (1658) which has some drawings of dragons and other creatures. Bestiaries were very popular in the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern period across Europe and combined real creatures with imagined ones. Topsell’s work is no different. People used to believe, however, that dragons were real, a possible descendent of the dinosaurs. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Harry has to fight his way past a dragon in the first task to retrieve a golden egg with a clue for the second task. The four champions each face a different type of dragon – Welsh Green, Swedish Shortsnout, Hungarian Horntail, or Chinese Fireball. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Harry, Ron, and Hermione escape from Gringotts Bank on the back of a dragon they’ve set free.
Something that I didn’t know is that there is a dinosaur named after Hogwarts – the Dracorex hogwartsia which was discovered in 2004. A cast of the skeleton is part of the exhibition. The dinosaur itself was part of the pachycephalosaur family (bone-headed dinosaurs). The name means ‘Dragon King of Hogwarts’. The remains were discovered in the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota, U.S.A., by three amateur palaeontologists.
It’s well-worth a visit to the Natural History Museum in London just to see this exhibition, though they also have fantastic exhibitions on dinosaurs, volcanoes and earthquakes, and the development of humans.
‘Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature’ is on at the Natural History Museum in London until 3 January 2022.