Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature: Exhibit Review – Natural History Museum, London

The Fantastic Beasts exhibit at the Natural History Museum opened on the 17th May 2021 after a years delay and runs through to the 3rd January 2022. Combining a mixture of props and items from the Harry Potter franchise studio tour in addition to the unique and wonderful items from the museums own collection of the natural world, this limited timed exhibit is a creative and imaginative look at not only the fictional world and creatures featured in the Fantastic Beasts series but also the animals that inspired and share abilities of their fantastical counterparts. Visitors are treated to an assortment of props and items from the Fantastic Beasts film series, it’s first real focus away from the Studio Tour that has traditionally and continues to focus primarily on the Harry Potter series of films including costumes, props and design information that details the creation of these fantastic creatures. Alongside the magical, videos and items from the museums collection including contributions from natural life films that detail the conservation and preservation of endangered species in addition to focusing on the amazing abilities of creatures less commonly known to a wider audience. Its both entertaining and educational in equal measure using the incredible detail of the source material and the amazing abilities of their real world counterparts to provide a fascinating exhibit to explore at leisure.

The exhibit was originally due to open in March of last year, postponed and delayed due to the impact of the Global Pandemic that saw all cultural spaces and museums in the UK closed last year until the Summer. With a tentative launch over the Festive Season, the first reviews and previews were released highlighting the ingenious nature of the exhibit in combining the most intriguing aspects of the natural world in comparison to the more grounded aspects of the film series. Delayed once more due to the ongoing prevalence of the virus in the UK, it finally opened to audiences of May this year, a welcome new addition to the cultural domain bringing a predominantly domestic audience back to the Natural History Museum before the country opens up to international travel later in the year. A paid exhibit, the museum continues to operate within the guidelines and restrictions for the time being, timed entry is required to ensure a safe space and capacity within the gallery operating under social distancing guidelines with regular touch points cleaned, a healthy provision of sanitiser a necessity on your visit. In one of the most unique and devastating periods of history to the cultural sector, new exhibits such as this provides an attraction to audiences starved of new experiences bringing them back out and about in a safe and manageable way.

The exhibit is designed and centred around the 2001 release Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them scribed by author J.K Rowling under the pen name Newt Scamander, the fictional character in the film series. Released as a guide book to the magical and fantastical creatures of the film series, the descriptions of these creations are emblazoned throughout the exhibit setting the tone and direction as you follow it around from the more historical creatures and remains to the endangered animals that need our support today. It’s a family friendly space, with a supporting guidebook and activities that appeals to children of all ages and makes for an enjoyable exhibit to explore at leisure before venturing out to explore the museums wider collection that is equally enthralling and engaging in its own right. Whilst it doesn’t feature props of the creatures themselves from the series, through a collaboration with Framestore, the VFX company who worked on the Harry Potter series, it manages to bring a measure of authenticity to the look and feel of these animals. There are certain elements of your tour you’ll be amazed at how they were brought to life in this small corner of London. Each fantastical element gives way to a real world example of a similar creature in nature and their influence in the design, it ebbs and flows between the magical and the educational in a calm and continuous fashion where you find yourself amazed at the very real abilities of creatures in the natural world.

A glance through Muggle art and literature of the Middle Ages reveals that many of the creatures they now believe to be imaginary were then known to be real

Newt Scamander – Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

And Where To Find Them….

Your first steps into the exhibit reveal the costume of character Newt Scamander, the series infamous resident “magizoologist”, a starting point similar to the Studio Tour in Leavesden that introduces this audience to the magical world of the series before diverging away in short order to the more interesting and intriguing discoveries in our very own natural environment. There are clear parallels and influences found in the series starting at the most historic point, the presence of dragons and other mystical creatures in literacy and history. One of the more intriguing aspects of this particular exhibit is how it charts and documents the earliest aspects of the discovery of bones and remains in the Victorian period of history, the earliest dinosaur remains for example and how that first discovery would have been communicated in spectacular fashion in the absence of archival techniques and practises. Today in our ‘enlightened’ times you can draw from a wealth of knowledge at your finger tips, at that point in history, you can understand how the discovery of these extinct creatures would have given rise to tales of the imagination which persevered and perhaps, influenced the creation of the mystical creatures featured in Fantastic Beasts. Your first steps into the exhibit in short order exemplifies the tone and direction in its entirety, an informative collection of bones and evolutionary knowledge on one side of the aisle, the prop of a fictional dragon skull from the film series directly opposite that typifies the aim of this particular attraction to educate and entertain using the premise of nature and magic to draw audiences in.

The first part of the exhibit is centred around historic and extinct beasts and the parallels to fictional creatures and their origins. The myth and legend of the unicorn for example presented both from the fictional perspective of the film series and in wider popular culture but also touching upon how it came to exist in common knowledge. In short order, you travel from the extinct to more recent history with examples of real world exhibits from the museums collection such as this preserved remains of a giant squid that may have influenced the mystical sea kraken, the giant creature capable of devouring ships with a mighty strength. Perhaps it plays a little on the presumed ignorance of historical societies but it’s certainly plausible to surmise a great many fictional stories were derived from these Fantastic Creatures long before we could archive and document their real origins and appearances. One of the more intriguing and engaging aspects of the exhibit later on are the films showing the attempts to preserve unique and incredible creatures close to extinction in the modern world for their distinct appearance and rumoured abilities. A broad, bittersweet note to consider but for all our prowess and knowledge, as a species we continue to hunt animals to extinction based on fable and folklore. We just don’t have the excuse of ignorance today only apathy to do something about it. From there, a journey to the present day to animals in the natural environment who share similar characteristics and capabilities to the magical creatures in Fantastic Beasts.

There are a variety of interactive exhibits towards the middle of your visit that utilise the collaboration and ingenuity of Framestore to bring the world of Fantastic Beasts to life in the absence of props and models from the film series. A fun little light up game that highlights the collective tendencies of a Niffler that felt very much like the exhibits at the studio tour though with one defective light sensor already after only a month of use, but then presented with a scientific background and equivalence. One of the most noted and fun installations is the virtual and interactive Erumpent that approaches and reacts to a squirt of perfume from a pedestal in the room. It looked detailed, didn’t suffer from projection issues or disruption when you approached the screen and was just a fun little break from the multitude of static and cabinet exhibits around you. It certainly benefits from the reduced capacity as you can imagine at busier periods it would be easy to bypass, with less pressure to move around to accommodate others, you can stop and enjoy just being a big kid again and finding enjoyment in these types of installations. One of my personal highlights of this visit was the virtual tree further ahead that is guarded by a swarm of Bowtruckles that react to your presence. Even as an adult there is a certain elicit thrill when you step too close to their domain and jump back as they chirp and bark at you to move away. These docile creatures seemingly fiercely protective of their natural domain. And rightly so, you can’t help but feel a certain warmth and connection to these fictional beasts, a testament to the curation of this exhibit in creating that sense of connection between the real world and fictional setting of Fantastic Beasts.

You conclude with the most difficult and engaging aspects of your visit, as noted earlier the modern day work by conservation teams to preserve and protect endangered species that have been fiercely hunted in their natural domain, often to the point of extinction. Whilst the exhibit does conclude on a lighter tone with a visually engaging shadow and light display, it was here surrounded by videos and images of these endangered species it actually had an element of depth bringing to life a number of lesser known species of birds and other creatures that have a distinct look and capabilities. Often hunted to fulfil herbs and medicines in certain cultures irrespective of the impact on the natural environment. This was the most telling and moving moment of the exhibit, you can understand about the extinction of dinosaurs and other creatures from critical junctures in history, the extinction of these species is entirely self inflicted by humanity. But it was notable to see a number of children captivated by these videos taking in these important messages. Perhaps there is still some hope for generations hence. When you first step into the exhibit and find yourself surrounded by props and costumes from the movie its easy to make the assumption this will be its main focus so it was a relief to find this measure of balance between the mystical and the real world. One final light exhibit reminiscent from something at the Tate Modern utilises lights and mirrors to project a shadow presentation of animals both real and fictional in unison that was a fitting visual metaphor to bring this particular exhibit to a close.

It is my fondest hope that a new generation will find in its pages fresh reason to love and protect the incredible beasts with whom we share magic

Newt Scamander – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

In Summary

An enjoyable, paid for exhibit at the Natural History Museum that was a long time in coming having been delayed due to the Pandemic but finally now open for visitors to enjoy and take part in. It draws its influence from the fictional world of Harry Potter whilst presenting an informative and educational comparison to the many creatures in the real world that share some of the remarkable abilities and qualities of the fictional onscreen characters and creations. Of course whether you find value in the entrance cost is entirely a subjective viewpoint, for an adult its about half the cost of a ticket to the larger Studio Tour in Leavesden with a scattering of props and costumes from the franchise creating that element of immersion between the two. That said, it does have an element of style and elegance in its presentation and general aesthetic that is commendable. The faux dark wooden panelling in the opening galleries for instance certainly brings to mind the movies presentation of Hogwarts and is keeping with how the studio tour uses its walls and spaces. Even towards the end of tour, there’s a great use of video projection, light and fixed props that was enjoyable to watch and delighted the audience who were captivated how it came together. It may be a temporary exhibit but this was one of the best uses of of a licensed product in collaboration with a museum I’ve seen in a long while that manages to capture the tone and look of the source material without sacrificing the quite serious narrative of the exhibit.

It does ‘feel’ a little small, one of the issues with these paid exhibits is the question of size and content within, whether there is sufficient material to satisfy and please a paying audience. There are three main sections to the exhibit of various size, it will take about an hour or two to pass through with some interactive sections to enjoy and take part in but for the most part, static fixed objects which are enjoyable to read about and providing worth through the unique qualities of the items within. In the absence of any new film or material in the near future, it does rely to an extent upon the legacy of the brand which in recent years has been impacted by the views and opinions of creator J.K Rowling however for the most part these are minimised here and instead just presents an informative and in part moving correlation between the fantastic beasts of the series and the natural world. It fulfils the mandate it sets out to do, drawing attention between the two in an informative manner, whilst perhaps a little small in terms of space it does a remarkable job with what is available to present this concise and interesting themed event. It’s an attraction best enjoyed in the absence of large crowds and audiences, somewhat of a contrarian viewpoint to its intention I’ll concede but certainly standing inside the exhibits, you do feel a connection to the natural world that would be lost with people pressing against you. It’s final punch of emotion drawing attention to species on the verge of extinction ‘works’ perfectly as you have come to appreciate the myriad of fictional creatures created for the series and delivers its message of conservation perfectly. A great, exhibit to see.

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