Cleveland, OH: “Medieval Monsters” @ the CMA

I think this week is less of a stretch than last week in keeping with the Halloween theme of October. C’mon, monsters?! Scary! But obviously the Cleveland Museum of Art doesn’t agree with me, because this exhibition closed well before Halloween, on 6th October. So you can’t visit it now, but I couldn’t have blogged about it in time anyway because I didn’t see it myself until the week before it closed, what with not living in Cleveland (frankly, I was glad I got to see it at all, after longingly watching CMA post about it for months on Instagram).


“Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders” was a free exhibition, as is the museum itself, but good luck finding parking nearby other than in the museum’s $10 lot (and public transport in Cleveland? Forget it!), but I can’t really begrudge them that income before it is such an excellent museum. However, they could have had better signage, because it took me ages to figure out where this exhibition was (I could only find paper maps, when a big mounted map somewhere would be much more eco-friendly), and I couldn’t even find a member of staff to ask. Eventually I realised it was downstairs, opposite the main special exhibition that you have to pay for (on Michelangelo at the time of my visit. I skipped it).


As you may have guessed from the title, the exhibition was divided into three sections: Terrors, which was meant to be about how monsters “enhanced the auras of those in power,” though I seem to recall it being primarily about saints and the ways in which they were tortured to death (admittedly, many of those pictures and manuscripts were originally owned by various kings and queens, hence the power I guess); Aliens, which was about marginalised groups in medieval European society; and Wonders, which was more in the vein of teratology, and included fabulous beasts and anomalous (and imaginary) humans.


The museum had also produced a rather fabulous free Field Guide to Medieval Monsters, which included images of all the monsters featured in the exhibition, with a brief description of each. This included some of my old favourites like Blemmyae (the supposed race of headless people with faces on their chests) and the Hellmouth (literally a mouth that was meant to be the entrance to hell); and others I’d seen but never knew the names of, like Gryllus (a human head on horse-like legs. Different from a centaur, because Gryllus is just a head sitting right on top of legs, no body) and the Ziphius (meant to be a horrible sea monster, but he’s grumpy and adorable! I want one as a pet. Please go look at him via the link at the start of this paragraph).


Even considering that much of the art was religious in nature – which is not normally my thing – because it was for the most part so weird and gory, this ending up being so my type of exhibition. There was thoughtful text in each room describing how the idea of monsters shaped the medieval world, and covering serious themes like mental illness and xenophobia, but I have to admit that I was mainly in it for the illuminated manuscripts and the promise of marginalia, and that is what has stuck with me the most when it came time to write this post. Though I probably shouldn’t, I find many medieval pictures depicting the martyrdom of saints completely hilarious, and my favourite here was the piece above left depicting St. Bartholomew keeping his chin up with a jolly grin whilst being flayed alive (and clearly the medieval church had a sense of humour just as sick as mine, because he is the patron saint of tanners, leather workers and butchers. Talk about black humour).


There was also some charming marginalia here, including my personal favourite, a man mooning some sort of ceremony (I forgot which) with his thumb up his butt to indicate disrespect (in case the mooning wasn’t disrespectful enough). Not quite as good as a butt trumpet, but close enough!


I also loved all the beasts – even the real ones like elephants and crocodiles appeared to have been drawn by someone who had never seen such things in person, and I find the naive nature of their illustrations endlessly charming. This exhibition was an absolute joy to look at, and I’m sorry you won’t be able to see it too, but I hope my (poor quality) images at least gave you a sense of what was there. My only complaint was that the postcards in the gift shop didn’t feature the best of the monsters, but I know having custom postcards made is always a bit of a gamble, so I can’t bitch too much. 4/5.


Whilst I was here, in addition to visiting my favourite Henri Rousseau (Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo) and Jacques-Louis David (Cupid and Psyche) paintings, I also popped in to see their “Color and Comfort: Swedish Modern Design” exhibition, which was in one of the small galleries upstairs. Based on the name, I was expecting something IKEA-esque, but it was so much better than that. This was actually about textile design, and though it was a bit light on signage (perhaps because it had been put together by grad students at Case), the fabrics themselves were absolutely lovely, as you can hopefully see from the images below. It only took me about ten minutes to view, but it’s worth the detour if you’re here anyway. Good old CMA!



Portland, Maine: International Cryptozoology Museum

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I’m sure you’re all already so enticed by the surly Sasquatches that you’re ready to head up to the (world’s only) Cryptozoology  Museum no matter what I say about it, but as is my custom, I’m going to ramble on at length about it anyway, so feel free to read on.  I was initially skeptical of their claim to be the only cryptozoological museum in the world (because if you’re going to be skeptical about a cryptozoology museum, that’s obviously the thing to be skeptical about), as there’s meant to be one in Devon that we nearly visited (but went to the Gnome Reserve instead; I have no regrets), but I did ask about it, and apparently it’s more of a library that is open by appointment only, so not officially a museum.  I have to say, we did specially detour to Maine for this museum, so my expectations were high indeed.

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We were greeted at the door by the museum’s founder (who appears to be a big name in cryptozoology circles, I feel kind of special to have met him), who collected our $7 admission fee (bit steep, but can you really put a price on Bigfoot?) and explained the museum’s aims.  Cryptozoology is a pseudoscience (just like my beloved teratology) based around the search for unknown animals, basically, animals that have not been proven to exist.  This of course includes creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot and the Yeti, but also things like animals that are thought to be extinct, but may still exist somewhere, and animals in their non-native habitats (like lions wandering around Surrey, for example).  As I’ve said before, I am generally a skeptic, but I still love museums like this, because I love taxidermy and weird crap in jars, and also, who doesn’t want to have their photograph taken with a stuffed Bigfoot?

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The contents of the museum are crammed into two rooms of neat stuff, with sections devoted to each major category of crypto-beast.  A surprising amount of it involved ordinary(ish) animals like “phantom cats,” which are large cats (as in lions, tigers, panthers, etc) spotted in unlikely areas, and skunk apes (your guess is as good as mine).  I would definitely have liked to see more labels, as often cases would be completely stuffed with casts of footprints or whatever, with scarcely any explanation about them.  I think there also needed to be more description of the various creatures – Bigfoot and his ilk were pretty well covered, but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to spot a “Montauk Monster” in the wild, for example, as I wasn’t provided with adequate information on his traits and habits.  There was also a lot of focus on the cryptids of Maine, which, fair enough, since the museum is in Maine, but I’m not familiar with their local sightings, so I would have appreciated more background on them.

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One thing I do have to give the museum credit for is the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Obviously, with a subject that’s kind of “out there,” you have to walk a fine line between scaring people off with your earnestness, and turning into a total hokey tourist attraction, and I think the Cryptozoology Museum strikes a nice balance between the two.

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This was especially evident in the back room (my favourite of the two), which talked about historical cryptids, with an example of the famous “Feegee Mermaid,” and had various movie memorabilia, including a jacket worn by Laura Linney in The Mothman Prophecies (I’m not a huge Laura Linney fan, but she seems to keep popping up in stuff I’m interested in, so maybe I should just give in already).  There was also a collection of original artwork that I loved (and nicely illustrated my point above, about not taking themselves too seriously)!  Just look at the faces of Surly Bigfoot at the top, and the “come hither” stare of the Yeti below.

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Clearly, there’s lots of great “artefacts” to be seen here.  Don’t miss Esau, the adorable baby Bigfoot!  (There was a clear description of the differences between a Yeti, Sasquatch, and Bigfoot, and I believe the consensus is that Bigfoot is a type of Sasquatch, but Yetis come from a different branch of the same family, though don’t hold me to that.)

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The much-anticipated unusual taxidermy was pretty good (though I was secretly hoping to see more weird Victorian stuff, like cats with wings, and multi-headed cows, things in that vein).  I have a fondness for jackalopes due to watching too many hours of that terrible America’s Funniest Videos-style show hosted by the epically unfunny Dave Coulier (aka Joey from Full House.  It was a different show than the one Bob Saget hosted, though Bob Saget actually has a hilariously foul mouth when he’s not involved in wholesome family entertainment), where they had some running joke that involved one.  The hag fish made from a ray creeped me out, because I have a phobia of stingrays, but everyone can enjoy the fur-bearing trout!

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There was a small amount of merchandise for sale, though it is a cash-only establishment, so come prepared, because you won’t want to miss out on the Mail-a-Bigfoot postcards!  A selection of books written or co-authored by Loren Coleman were also available, including some of the Weird America series (I already own Weird Ohio.  And Weird England).  There’s also some t-shirts and bumper stickers.

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I did enjoy the Cryptozoology Museum, though I do think they could do with a wider range of taxidermy (though I tend to think any museum could be improved with more taxidermy, as long as it’s not of insects or gross sea life.  Blech!), and also with more captions/information.  For example, I’ve always been intrigued by the stories of the Mothman and the Jersey Devil, and though these are touched on, the history of the sightings weren’t explored to the extent I would have liked.  It is clear that they need more space to accomplish many of these things, so I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on them.  They do manage to explore an unusual topic with a touch of whimsy, so bonus points for that!  3.5/5

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