By Alex Owens
From now until the end of 2015, the Museum of Man in Balboa Park is being taken over by monsters.
Or should we say “Monsters!,” a new exhibit focusing on the strange mythological creatures that have inspired stories for centuries.
The family-friendly exhibit explores how imaginary animals like dragons, vampires and sasquatches have taken on lives of their own thanks to the human imagination.
The creatures might be figments of fertile imaginations, but Karen Lacy — the Museum’s collections manager, who created the exhibit along with museum volunteer Melanie Dallas — said monsters have an important place in human development.
“The human mind seeks to understand things,” Lacy said. “Mythology is a way of understanding the unknown. For instance, people lose things for no apparent reason. Well, there are creatures that steal things.”
People enter the exhibit through the mouth of a tentacled monster. Then they learn about various strange creatures, some famous while others are more from folk culture, and where the myths originated.
“Some creatures have a definite origin,” Lacy said. “Others are harder to source.” There is a controversy where dragons started. Many cultures have similar stories about them.
“It’s possible someone may have seen dinosaur bones and put a story to it to explain them,” she said. “The myth is a way of understanding the unknown.”
It is also a way of processing horrific experiences.
Godzilla, for example, who is featured in the exhibit, was created in Japan in the 1950s as a metaphor for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945.
The exhibit takes advantage of many statues and sculptures from museum archives depicting the mythological creatures, along with items loaned from other museums.
Lacy pointed out that sharing through families and cultures was also a key part of how creatures like the vampire were able to spread around the world.
The first stories about the bloodsuckers appeared in Mesopotamia more than 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, but word spread all over the world.
“Different groups of people would trade goods, but they also traded stories and beliefs,” Lacy said. “Cross-cultural connections get made, but it also shows something about the way humans think.”
It’s possible that some of the creatures described as “mythological” in the exhibit, like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, may one day turn out to be real.
That’s not explored in the Monsters! exhibit, but Lacy said science should be open to understanding a culture’s myths as a way of getting information.
“Just because the science doesn’t support something doesn’t mean it’s not of value,” she said. “When you’re hearing a story from someone, you have to listen to what they’re saying, and you might have to put it in context with what is already known.”
Working on the exhibit was a lot of fun for Lacy and the rest of the staff at the Museum of Man.
“I loved learning about all the myths,” she said. “Every day, you’d uncover something new.”
Though she doesn’t want to play favorites, Lacy admitted that she renewed her love of mermaids.
“I didn’t know that mermaids are supposed to have a shell necklace,” she said. “If you take the necklace, the mermaid has to do what you want, but if they got it back, they’d cause a tsunami.”
Monsters! is currently open and runs throughout 2015 at the Museum of Man, located at 1350 El Prado in Balboa Park. For more information on Monsters!, visit museumofman.org/monsters.
—Alex Owens is a San Diego-based freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.