Curious Beasts and Elements at Ulster Museum

Curious Beasts is an exhibition of animal prints on loan from the British Museum.  Prints from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century are on display, made by a range of techniques from woodcut and etching to drypoint. I really enjoyed the way the exhibition charted the development of knowledge about natural history, especially Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros from 1515.  Dürer made the woodcut based on a sketch by another artist, he had not seen a rhinoceros himself, and the print shows the rhino with plates over the body, scales on the legs and a small horn on the shoulders, completely different to how we know rhinos look.  Despite knowledge about rhinoceroses developing Dürer’s image was so popular that it was still used in German textbooks until 75 years ago.


Image courtesy of the British Museum

Another one of my favourite prints was this set of business cards produced for J Thompson, a London taxidermist between 1785 and 1792.  The animals depicted on the cards show how popular collecting exotic animals from other continents was in this period, and how taxidermy progressed from birds and owls onto big cats.

tradecards I also found this colour print by George Cruikshank, promoting a mermaid on display intriguing.  We all know mermaids don’t exist, but this one doesn’t even look very feminine or appealing, we’ve been led to believe that even the imaginary Disney’s Little Mermaid is a girl with a tail.  Nineteenth century mermaids are a lot less appealing according to this print!  The ‘mermaid’ was bought by a sea-captain for $5,000 and was the top half a blue faced monkey with the skin and fins of a salmon constructed to look like a mermaid.


The most colourful and satirical print in the collection was ‘The Return to the Political Ark’ by William Dent from 1790. The animals going into the ark have the heads of politicians of the era, comparing the politicians to animals rescued from the flood.


Image courtesy of the British Museum

After ‘Curious Beasts’ I went to see ‘Elements: From Actinium to Zirconium’, which explores the relevance of elements to our everyday lives.  There was a large display of the periodic table with samples of all the elements that could be safely displayed, the radioactive ones had photographs of the people who discovered them.


Although later I spotted a decorative light with lovely curved details and was surprised when I read the label and discovered it was uranium glass! So this means it would glow bright green under UV light, but probably barely gives off any radiation and would only register on a really sensitive Geiger counter.

uranium glass

I found the exhibition really interesting, I knew that in Elizabethan times ladies used lead powder on their faces to whiten their appearance, but was quite surprised by the rang of colour pigments and their uses.  There was a wide range of items of display from the entire collection of the museum, from toy trains to ancient metal tools, as well as modern jewellery pieces and a Victorian medicine cabinet.

‘Elements’ will work well for education visits, as there is a lot to see in the exhibition and it covers such a long period of history, as well as encompassing other subjects, such as geography and technology.  It really showcased the breadth of the museum’s collection and I enjoyed interacting with the world map showing where elements are found, if there’s a push button interactive that lights up in an exhibition that’s where you’ll find me!