Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature, has opened at London’s Natural History Museum. The exhibition is a partnership between the Natural History Museum, the BBC Studios Natural History Unit, and Warner Bros Consumer Products, draws parallels between creatures from Fantastic Beasts and the natural world’s most spellbinding animals.
The exhibition explores how the real and wizarding worlds intertwine. The Harry Potter universe follows on a long tradition of humankind watching the natural world and imagining creatures which form the basis of myth and legend. Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature explores the links between the beasts from the wizarding world, mythical creatures in general, and animals from the natural world. The museum hopes that, by gaining more understanding of the extraordinary creatures that live on our planet, we can protect them for the future.
“From roaring dragons to mischievous nifflers, the wizarding world created by J.K. Rowling is full of remarkable animals,” says the exhibition guide. “Discover the real animals that are as extraordinary as any mythical creature and…see the need to protect them for generations to come.”
“We really explore the storytelling aspect of science and discovery,” says Louis Buckley, exhibition lead. “With some mythical beings like dragons, unicorns, mermaids, there are clearly parallels between real things people have seen, and these mythical beings have roots in interpretations of things that haven’t been understood at that point in time, so it’s a great way to draw out messages of discovery and the evolution of knowledge.”
It took two years to create the exhibit, and employed over 100 skilled staff, from scientists to film makers and woodworkers. The Natural History Museum worked closely alongside Warner Bros and the Blair Partnership literary agency. Framestore, the Bafta and Oscar-winning VRX experts were also involved. The BBC Natural History Unit also lent its expertise.
Props used in the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts movie series are used. Interactive digital displays bring creatures such as the Niffler, Demiguise, Bowtruckles and Erumpent to life.
The opportunity to explore a new concept
Lorraine Cornish, science lead on the exhibit, explains in an interview with Forbes that Fantastic Beasts was an opportunity to explore a new concept. “When there comes an opportunity to possibly look at everything through a very different lens, with aspects of magic, witchcraft and storytelling, and fictional beasts – it’s really interesting to see what can come from that combination of all of those things,” she said.
Virtual tours via Google Arts & Culture
A virtual exhibition runs alongside the physical one. Google Arts & Culture offers people the opportunity to step into the world of fantastic beasts from their living room. Sofa visitors can walk around the Natural History museum exhibition and get to know real-life weird and wonderful animals. It aims to be sociable too. Gather family and friends to play a fantastic beasts’ game night, or create your own new fantastic creatures with friends. Meet nature’s own mermaids and dragons by exploring mythical creatures throughout history.
The online offering includes quizzes, facts and videos. It also uses AR to ‘invite animals into your living room’ including the largest animal on earth.
Real-life inspiring magic
The exhibition explores how various mythical or magical beasts could have been inspired by real-life creatures. For example, tales of dragons may have come from sightings of large snakes, such as Indian rock pythons, alongside the finding of dinosaur bones. Unicorns were believed to be real creatures for hundreds of years. The ‘unicorn’ horns trades across Europe for centuries are now known to have come from narwhals, small Arctic whales which have a large tooth (known as a tusk) which emerges from the front of their heads and can grow up to ten feet. Meanwhile the legends around mermaids are suspected to have come from sightings of manatees at sea alongside the haunting whale song people may have heard while sailing on the ocean.
The real-life Newt Scamander
The guide to the exhibition is Newton Artemis Fido Scamander (Newt), a Magizoologist, a wizard who studies magical beasts. In the movie adaptations of Fantastic Beasts, he is played by Eddie Redmayne.
The exhibit acknowledges the work of explorers and naturalists who travelled the globe and studies the animals they found on their travels.
“The observations and collections they made during these travels helped pave the way for scientists who research, understand and protect the natural world today,” says the catalogue. It notes, however, that their work was enabled and driven by European colonialism.
Exhibits include items from explorers and etymologists’ kit. This section also shows the sketches and paintings of early explorers, such as Olivia Tonge and Margaret Fountaine.
Seeking the shy and the invisible
Many magical creatures can disguise themselves or even vanish – witness the Demiguise in Fantastic Beasts. Nature’s own magicians include creatures which can ‘disappear’ in order to survive tough environments and hungry predators. The exhibit focuses on animals that can hide in plain sight, such as the common chameleon, the cuttlefish, and the see-through amphipod. Other animals have markings that disrupt the outline of their bodies, such as the jaguar.
In the wizarding world the Niffler is infamous for its love of collecting and hoarding – but nature has its own thieves and collectors – the exhibit introduces Royle’s pika, the Adelie penguin, and the bone-house wasp.
Protecting the vulnerable
Newt Scamander protects and cares for magical creatures, and the Natural History Museum is keen to emphasise the need for similar understanding for our real life fantastic beasts.
“In our world, human activity is endangering the future of many animals, with tens of thousands of species at risk of disappearing forever,” says the museum. This section of the exhibit focuses in on endangered species and how conservationists are working to save them. Species include the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, the Sunda pangolin, and the Caspian tiger.
Visitors are given practical simple tips for helping the planet, tying in with the museum’s upcoming Our Broken Planet year-long series of events.
Images: Natural History Museum & Warner Bros.