Marvels of the North

Our new exhibition The Far North – Frozen Stars, Shifting Ice & the Silence Beyond opened at The Sir Duncan Rice Library at the beginning of April, and to herald in the exhibition public programme we celebrated the Easter holidays with two Family Fun sessions, exploring the creatures, both real and imaginary, depicted in the exhibition.

Our first Family Fun, Monster Movement, played with the idea of the monstrous creatures that early explorers thought lived in the Arctic seas. Tales were told of a great sea serpent that lived in the ocean, though descriptions of its exact appearance differed. In the exhibition is an illustration from the Natural History of Norway by Danish scholar Erik Pontoppidan (1752), which shows two imaginings of the serpent – with one depiction distinctly resembling our very own Loch Ness monster.

p196_sea serpent compressedIn the Special Collections we also have a copy of Abraham Ortelius’ extraordinary map of Iceland, in which the sea is populated by all sorts of hideous sea monsters. On the back of the map is a key, which describes the monsters’ appearance and habits. Some of the monsters are clearly related to real Arctic animals such as the narwhal and the walrus, even if the descriptions are a bit strange. For example, the Rostunger, which seems to be based on the walrus, is said to sleep while hanging off rocks and cliffs by its two long teeth!

pi f912_00_Ort P 2_Islandia compressedIn this Family Fun session participants thought about how sea monsters move. They created their own Arctic sea monsters, making large versions that hung on strings and could wiggle, and close-ups of the heads, with working jaws. Each monster had to have an identity card as well, which described not only how it moved, but also its appearance, habitat, feeding habits and level of threat to Arctic explorers. Most of the monsters created that day were so ferocious they were off the scale.

Participants also got the chance to work with creative movement tutor Linzy McAvoy, using their bodies to explore monster movements and bringing their monsters literally to life. Check out the pictures below to see what happened at Monster Movement.

A week later Family Fun was back with Fauna of the Floes, this time discovering the factual animals that really inhabit the Arctic. The rare books in the exhibition abound with illustrations and anecdotes of polar bears, walruses, seals and many, many more creatures of the Arctic. There is also a real narwhal tusk, and some beautiful carved husky dogs from the University of Aberdeen Museums’ collections on display.

Participants made Arctic mini-worlds depicting the animal life both on and below the ice floes. As well as taking inspiration from the items on display in the exhibition, we used copies of a map from one of the rare books in the Special Collections, An Account of the Arctic Regions by William Scoresby. The book was published in 1820 and you can see that at that time, the top of Greenland and Canada were not yet discovered, as the map shows just blank space instead of land and coast. One of the fun facts about this map was that its maker, William Scoresby, went on his first expedition to the Arctic at the age of only eleven! His father was an explorer and that was how he got to go on his first voyage at such a young age.

Arctic map by William ScoresbyParticipants incorporated the map into their artwork, using it to make animals to inhabit box-worlds, and as the background of the sea and ice for miniature ice floes.

If you fancy making your own Arctic sea monsters or ice floe mini-worlds, why not take inspiration from our photographs and have a go at home. Feel free to download and use the Sea Monster Identity Card and the Arctic Regions Map.

Also, if you would like to know more about the sea monsters in Ortelius’ map of Iceland, check out this fascinating blog post. The author researched the origins of each of the monsters depicted in the map.

Our next Family Fun will be on Saturday 30th May, as part of the University’s May Festival. Come along to The Sir Duncan Rice Library between 1 and 4 pm.

Posted by: Sarah

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