Dragons and kraken and rocs, oh my.
Fantasy beasts have taken over the Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park, which on Saturday opens its second traveling exhibit presented by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids” may seem like a whimsical offering from such a prestigious institution. But there are good, and fascinating, reasons to conclude that these mythic creatures were inspired by real ones.
“The show is about observations in the real world that then are transformed into these mythical animals that show up in almost every culture around the world,” said Mark Norell, head of the paleontology department at the American Museum of Natural History.
“One of the classics was the kraken, a giant octopus that ate ships,” Norell continued. “It was a fisherman’s tale. They would see a giant squid or something, and with each telling it got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Norell was in Overland Park this week to inspect the exhibit, which was based on his concept. He is more likely to be found in his museum office overlooking Central Park or in the field hunting fossils.
He recently returned from an expedition in the Gobi Desert — his 25th consecutive year — and in Romania. Norell said his team uncovered several new species of dinosaurs, but it will take a year or two to get the papers written.
The paleontologist also gets a kick out of speculating that skulls from extinct dwarf elephants, which have a single hole in the forehead, were the origin of the cyclops myth of the Mediterranean. Or that protoceratops fossils were the inspiration for tales of gargoyles and griffins.
The exhibit, covering about 7,000 square feet, examines mythic creatures of the sea, land and air. It features large models of various beasts, including the tentacles of a kraken coming up out of the floor and other creatures suspended from the ceiling.
Several interactive stations give kids something to play with. Adults will be amused to find books of science, such as a 1558 text with a serious entry and illustration about mermaids.
European sailing ships had mermaid figureheads on their bows, which became part of the west African sea spirit mythology of Mami Wata.
Sometimes primitive cultural tales hold a surprise for moderns.
“There was a myth amongst the Maori people in New Zealand about a giant bird that stole their children,” Norell said. “Well, everybody thought it was a myth until about 30 years ago when the remains of a giant eagle were found there. They went extinct only a short time after the first Polynesians got to New Zealand.”
The American Museum of Natural History, which formed a partnership with the private Prairiefire development at 135th Street and Nall Avenue, has been producing a couple of traveling exhibits a year for the past decade. “Mythic Creatures” is the most popular one.
“It’s a very compelling topic with really broad appeal,” said Prairiefire museum director Uli Sailer Das. “It has a wonderful combination of scientific evidence and a spark of imagination that I think will really attract and engage a lot of people.”
Through Feb. 1 at the Museum at Prairiefire, 5801 E. 135th St., Overland Park
Adults $14, children 3-12 $8.