A travelling exhibition of beast and other creatures

People have been telling stories about mythical beings for thousands of years. These legends, sometimes inspired by oral legends, fossils or living animals, withstand the test of time and continue to intrigue to this day.

Opening at the Museum of Surrey on May 11, 2023, Giants, Dragons & Unicorns: The World of Mythic Creatures traces the natural and cultural roots of some of the world’s most enduring mythic creatures.

The traveling exhibition from the American Museum of Natural History in New York features unique cultural objects to highlight the similarities and differences in the ways people around the world envision and depict mythic creatures. The exhibition includes models and cast fossils of prehistoric animals to investigate how they could have – through misidentification, speculation, fear, or imagination – inspired the development of several legendary creatures. A sculpture of the African water spirit Mami Wata will be among the exhibition’s highlights.

Who is Mami Wata?

According to the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C., United States), the beautiful, protective, seductive, and at times dangerous, water spirit Mami Wata (Mother Water) is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Atlantic. A rich array of arts surrounds her, as well as many other aquatic spirits – all honoring the sacred nature of water. Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid, a snake charmer, or a combination of both. She is widely believed to have “overseas” origins, and her depictions have been influenced by representations of ancient, indigenous African water spirits, European mermaids, Hindu gods and goddesses, and Christian and Muslim saints. She is not only sexy, jealous, and bveguiling but also exists in the plural, as the mami watas and papi watas who comprise part of the vast and uncountable “school” of African water spirits.

African-based faiths honoring these manifestations of Mami Wata continue to flourish in communities throughout the Americas. Mami Wata’s presence is pervasive partly because she can bring good fortune in the form of money. As a “capitalist” deity par excellence, her persona developed between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries, the era of growing trade between Africa and the rest of the world. Her very name, which may be translated as “Mother Water,” is pidgin English, a language developed to facilitate trade. Countless enslaved Africans brought to the Americas as part of this “trade” carried with them their beliefs, practices, and arts honoring water spirits such as Mami Wata. Revived, revisualized, and revitalized in the African Atlantic, Mami Wata emerged in new communities and under different guises, among them Lasirèn (Haiti) , Yemanja (Nigeria), Santa Marta la Dominadora (Dominican Republic), and Oxum (Brazil).

About the American Museum of Natural History

Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid, a snakecharmer, or a combination of both. | Photo courtesy of City of Surrey

Founded in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History, located in New York, NY, is one of the world’s preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions.

It encompasses more than 40 permanent exhibition halls, including the Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals which opened in 2021 – and those in the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, as well as galleries for temporary exhibitions. The Museum’s scientists have access to a world-class research collection of more than 34 million artifacts and specimens, of plants, animals, fungi, fossils, minerals, rocks, meteorites, human remains, and human cultural artifacts, as well as specialized collections for frozen tissue and genomic and astrophysical data, some of which are billions of years old.

The Museum also holds one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. The Museum’s website, digital videos, and apps for mobile devices bring its collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to millions more around the world.

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