Exhibit “Beautiful and Resilient” examines the cultural background of unicorns

Exhibit “Beautiful and Resilient” examines the cultural background of unicorns

The focal point of the new Perth Museum’s opening ceremonies will be the display.

The unicorn has amassed a plethora of meaning throughout the course of two millennia, reflecting the eras’ preoccupations. Two things, however, never change: the mythical horse-like monster with the single spiralling horn sticking out of its forehead is invincible and has a remarkable ability to heal.

The unicorn is the focus of a significant exhibition that opens in Perth this coming weekend. The unicorn has been shown in many contexts, from the Roman historian Pliny’s description of a beast with a roaring roar to its selection as a symbol of Scottish monarchy to its modern acceptance as an image of diversity by the LGBTQ+ community.

Following a £27 million renovation of the former City Hall, which will house the Stone of Destiny—another object of enduring national fascination—the new Perth Museum will host the first exhibition in the UK to explore the cultural history of this elusive, magical, and beloved creature.

“We’re investigating people’s perceptions of an animal they haven’t seen,” remarks JP Reid, the chief curator, as he considers a 2.5-meter-long, 700-year-old narwhal tusk borrowed from the Wellcome Collection in London.

By the Renaissance, the tusks of these Arctic whales were valued at almost 20 times the equivalent weight in gold and exchanged as unicorn horns, bestowing tremendous prominence.

In fact, many were persuaded that there was a terrestrial counterpart by the presence of narwhals, who are often referred to as the unicorns of the sea.

According to Reid, “the unicorn was just another animal that travellers would talk about for people in mediaeval and Renaissance Europe.” They were just as genuine as giraffes, elephants, or rhinos. Unexpectedly, westerners didn’t begin to question the veracity of this until the end of the 19th century.

Due to its prominence in early Christianity, the unicorn gained this deep meaning. It may be seen in many 13th-century bestiaries, which are collections of historical accounts of both actual and mythical creatures that were common throughout the Middle Ages and are on exhibit. According to Reid, the narrative eventually evolves that the only way to capture a unicorn is by enticing it with a virgin lady. Unicorns were formerly seen to be symbols of purity and innocence. He holds back. “Clearly, there’s a lot of innuendo occurring.”

By the Renaissance, people felt comfortable utilising the mythological creature’s purported horns for medicinal purposes, wearing pendants fashioned of narwhal tusks to filter water, and combining scrapings for therapeutic purposes because of its rich symbolic connotations.

James I adopted the unicorn in the fifteenth century as the “branding” of the royal Stuarts; nonetheless, the unicorn was usually shown in chains, signifying his years of imprisonment in England prior to the unification of the kingdoms.

However, the unicorn’s influence goes well beyond the past, and at least half of the show is devoted to its contemporary versions. A large collection of things that were crowdsourced, such as My Little Ponies, novelty headgear, and clothes and plush toys in rainbow colours, represents the creature’s pervasiveness in pop and children’s culture.

The last section of the exhibition features six newly commissioned pieces that explore the ongoing struggles faced by the queer community worldwide, such as institutional homophobia, transgender inclusion, and conversion practices. These pieces pay homage to other historical examples of taxidermy in the museum’s permanent collection and transform blank, lifesize horse heads around the theme of “unicorn hunting in 2023.”

According to Jennie Grady, the community co-production officer who collaborated with nearby LGBTQ+ organisations on the show, “queer stories are so seldom told in museums.” “It felt so important to celebrate why the unicorn resonates with young people, especially in light of the current political climate, where they feel like it’s harder than ever just to exist.” The unicorn is beautiful and tenacious, existing even when it is invisible.

According to Ashleigh Hibbins, the museum’s director of audiences, sustainability is also an issue. This £27 million project offers the chance to narrate stories in a fresh manner. Throughout history, museums have told mostly white, masculine, and stale tales; thus, in order for them to remain relevant, they must reflect the communities in which they are located. It’s not just a practical but also a moral concern.

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