Monster animals. Fables and facts

Museum exhibition (and publication)

Museum: Teylers Museum  website
Years: February 2018 - June 2018, perhaps to travel to other museums

Teylers Museum

The Teylers Museum is the oldest Museum in Holland, founded in the 18the century; the Age of Enlightment; where myth an reality, folklore and facts were separated. Its collection consists of fossils, valuable books (16th - 20th century), scientific instruments and a collection of drawings and paintings.
Generally speaking in the exhibition programme of the Museum the focus is more on the history, then on the present day voices related to a specific theme (for example with the recent exhibitions on the invention of electricity, on circus, on human shows or the expositions on Renaissance drawings).

Monster animals. Fables and facts

Description of the project / practice / program

The exhibition ‘Monster animals’ presents, explores and analyses the birth and development (and sometimes the ending) over time of local beliefs, stories  and practices concerning Monster animals; certain animals ‘that science has not (yet) acknowledged’. Some of these ‘monster animals’ are world-famous, like the  ‘Monster of Loch Ness’, the Himalayan Yeti/Abominable Snowman and the Canadian/American Sasquatch/Bigfoot. Others, such as the Swiss tatzelwurm (a sort of dragon), and the South German wolpertinger and the egg laying Hoch-alp-gems are only locally known.
In the exhibition we make people reflect on the shape and power of the belief in monster animals. What observations, ideas and stories lay at the base of the belief in these animals? What  social practices are connected to these animals? What have people actually seen when they report to have encountered a monster animal, and how does a cultural/local lens shape the observation? How do these ideas change in meaning, according to time, social and cultural group and context. How do these mythical animals of rural communities suddenly change in form and meaning when incorporated in a western, urban context? What factors influence the evolution of these mythical animals as cultural heritage, and for whom? It is clear that there is a - perhaps too little recognized - interaction between rural and urban contexts.
In this process, Nessie (just as Bigfoot and Yeti) has shape shifted. In Nessie’s case very much literally, in character with its original form as a shapeshifting and dangerous kelpie/water horse from Scottish folklore, to the living fossil we imagine Nessie to be today. Her form and meaning are essentially formed by urban influences as the science of palaeontology, and monster movies such as King Kong. But albeit for different reasons, Nessie lives, and has to live, as cultural heritage of Loch Ness, but today also as an icon of Scotland and even a world icon. The green monster sold in the tourist shops now has a Scottish cap on its fluffy head.
And perhaps, on a more general level,  is seems a very urban and modern wish that somewhere in nature, mythical animal are still alive.

How were practitioners of intangible cultural heritage involved?

By preparing  the exhibition 'Monster animals' we involved several individuals, sometimes loosely related to a community. There were in fact not strictly organised communities focussed on the preservation of a tradition, although this could play a more prominent role in the future. For example in the process of searching an official UNESCO status for Loch Ness as a Cultural and Natural Heritage Site, the Loch Ness monster figures prominently. Groups of hunters that are the guardians of South German traditions on 'monster animals' like the wolpertinger and the Gems-that-lays-eggs, might in the future consider special  safeguarding measures for their traditions.
Since the examples were drawn from several parts of the world, we talked to many people involved in the processes of keeping the beliefs surrounding these mythical animals alive. These included members of the Society of Cryptozoology, that could perhaps be considered  the protagonists of oral traditions of several kinds, local beliefs and practices related to animals that might exists, but are not acknowledged by science. These 'monster animals' include, for example, the Bigfoot in NW Canada. Groups of friends almost ceremoniously go looking for this mythical being in the forests, dressed for the occasion in green, with the image of Bigfoot on their T-shirt, every Sunday afternoon. They hardly know about the origins of this animal as a 'Sasquatch'; a hairy half-god prominent in the beliefs of the coastal groups of the First Nations of Canada. Although both First Nations and cryptozoologist believe in the 'Bigfoot/Sasquatch', their traditions and emotions regarding this mythical being are very different. For the exhibition  we spoke and sometimes filmed  individuals around Loch Ness, that certainly represent ideas shared by their community. The big divide generally seems to be the traditional/local communities for whom Nessie/Bigfoot/Yeti is a mythical being, and the western or westernised groups who hope to discover a real animal, encouraged by the commercial interest of yet another group of locals.
Thus  we have tried to do justice to the contrasting meanings and emotions that monster animals evoked by different communities.  It is clear that a new concept entered the perception of these mythical animals  when they were usurped by western journalists, researchers and the larger public, and became worldwide recognized  icons. Interestingly enough, although these ideas contrast, generally speaking the profit is shared; in Scotland and the Himalaya monster tourists are welcome; they bring business to the region.

© cover image: Bibi Veth

CV of the author

Jet Bakels (NL) is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and has focussed on the way people in a specific culture or subcultures express their worldview by, among others, rituals, oral traditions and artefacts. More and more Bakels was drawn to the way this could be expressed in museum exhibitions, and how you could understand and present 'the language of things' in a museum setting – while doing justice to the people that we 'represented'. Later on, she added a focus on the role and meaning of the natural world and animals for a certain community, all on which Bakels widely published (starting with a Ph.D. study). To her experience it has been very fruitful to combine work as a museum curator with that of a researcher and writer. In 2018 two exhibitions and corresponding publications were realised, in which the way people express their identity (sometimes conflicting identities) through their cultural heritage comes to the fore.


Before you present ICH in the museum, do good research:

  • what persons could be considered representing a tradition? Is there a conflict over intellectual property involved? Probaly there are multiple voices, with differing emotional, practical and intellectual relations to the ICH tradition ? 
  • In the museum presentation, try to work with as little filters as possible; try to allow a direct contact beween public and ICH, by involving the community of the ICH tradition as direct as possible, by organizing it with them, let them guide the public in a digital or direct way, use film etc. And do not forget the multiplicity. 
  • By doing it this way, you support and inspire people to safeguard their tradition as well. A museum is a good institution to be used as a place to document and archive  ICH, also to document and store the material component that is involved.




13 July 2018 from 12:00 to 12:00



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