Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals

16th March - 27th June 2015

Mon - Sat 1-5pm

  (c) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

By examining the world of animal representations, the exhibition explores how imagery has been used to bring newly discovered animals into the public eye. From the earliest days of exploration, visual depictions in artworks, books, the media and even toys have been essential in representing exotic creatures that are alien to people at home.

Strange Creatures from many angles

Many of the exhibition’s displays were developed by palaeontologists and by historians of science, exploration and art from UCL. They have investigated the theme of animal representation from the perspective of their own disciplines to create a diverse exhibition among the Museum’s permanent displays.

Modern mechanics and medieval manuscripts

These researchers’ stories include medieval accounts of exotic creatures, art from the ages of exploration and empire, sailors who faked “dragon” specimens by manipulating dried fish, contemporary knitted craft taxidermy and twenty-first century reconstructions of dinosaurs based on cutting-edge engineering principles. Together they explore how unknown animals are communicated to the wider public.

What's in the exhibition?

Strange Creatures centres upon George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo, which was created following Captain Cook’s first Pacific “Voyage of Discovery”. It is Europe’s first painting of an Australian animal and became the archetype for how people imagined this iconic species for decades. This painting was recently saved for the nation after it was initially sold to an overseas buyer. This resulted in a government export bar before Royal Museums Greenwich raised the funds to keep it in the UK. This exhibition represents a chance to see the artwork among other animal depictions from the time of their earliest European encounters.

The story of how the first European encounter came to be is also explored - if Cook's ship hadn't wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770 the relationship between Europe and Australian wildlife could have been very different. One of Cook's own hand-written journals is put on display.

A copy of Durer's rhino, with fantastical armour and a strange shoulder horn (C) UCL Art Museum, University College London
  (C) UCL Art Museum, University College London

The exhibition includes a number of animal artworks created by people who had never seen the creature in the flesh, such as a sixteenth century copy of Dürer’s famous armoured rhinoceros.

“It’s not only historic artworks which mis-portrayed these amazing species,” says Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby, who curated Strange Creatures, “but we also see it in the practice of taxidermy, where skins were shipped back to Europe and fleshed-out to recreate the animal based on a few notes. It’s also true of modern dinosaur toys, which have been copying outdated images of fossil species for over a century.”

You can download the Final Project Report here (pdf).

The Strange Creatures team

Strange Creatures was curated by Jack Ashby (Grant Museum) with co-curators Chiara Ambrosio, Joe Cain and Simon Werrett (all UCL Science and Technology Studies); Andrew Cuff and Anjali Goswami (both UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment); Bob Mills and Sarah Wade (both UCL History of Art); Misha Ewen and Margot Finn (both UCL History); and Andrea Fredericksen (UCL Art Museum).

Travellers' Tails

The exhibition is the first stage of a tour of the Stubbs painting which will see it travel to The Horniman Museum and Gardens; The Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby; and the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.

It forms part of a collaboration between these three museums, the Grant Museum and the National Maritime Museums in a project called Travellers' Tails

The project aims to bring together artists, scientists, explorers and museum professionals to investigate the nature of exploration in the Enlightenment era, how the multitude of histories can be explored and experienced in a gallery, heritage and museum setting, and to question what exploration means today. Travellers' Tails is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund.

RMG logo HLF logo Art Fund logo

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Read the press release on the UCL News website.