A few weeks ago our friend Nicolas Richards invited us to the hidden gem that is the Natural History Museum of Paris, specifically the Galerie de L’Evolution. Nic’s Aunt is the director of the museum(s) and gave us passes to explore them all. Within this beautifully landscaped, massive garden are a number of museums (Botanical, Paleontology, Gemology, Anatomy) but the museum of Evolution, a recently restored Natural History museum, is an astounding example of curation.
As you enter you’re under the skeletons of a Blue, Gray, and Humpback whale as you pass through into the ocean exhibit. Above them, on the second story, there is a menagerie of land animals from every continent in procession. Giraffes, elephants, wild boar, bears, lions, tigers, and all kinds of large mammals form a stunning tableau of life. Along the sides of the galleries a number of exhibits explore evolution, from bio-engineering and genetic modification of animals, to an entire wing dedicated to species either extinct or near extinction (including a Rhinoceros exhibit that needed updating since the recent extinction of the White Rhino).
A highlight for me, I discovered and explored the Monodon Monoceros, or Narwhal, exhibit. It was tucked away in the back of the underwater section of the museum and is dedicated to the legends surrounding the narwhal, the origin for the myth of the unicorn. There was a life-size cast of a real narwhal placed in the center as well as a narwhal tusk that you could measure your height against (it was over eight feet long!). There was also a wealth of knowledge regarding the Inuit and the annual hunt of the narwhals during their migration, the methods for spearing with harpoon, the use of seal fur ‘floats’ to slow down and keep the narwhal from submerging, and how the blubber, or muktuk, is dried and stored for eating in the winter and is one of the only sources of Vitamin C for the Inuit.
There was also the lovely, though somewhat disturbing, video animation of the story of the Inuit legend of how the Narwhal got its tusk. It tells the story of a blind child who is abused and taken advantage of by his grandmother. A loon at the bottom of a lake restores the boys sight and, along with the help of his sister, he enacts revenge upon his mean grandmother by harpooning the largest whale passing the ice flow while having a tether to the harpoon tied to his grandmother. She’s pulled into the water and her hair begins to twirl around until it formed the tusk of the Narwhal. The viewing ‘theater’ for the video was perfect, it was an igloo.
It seems we continue to stumble into and find exhibits everywhere we go having to do with Narwhals. Like when we went to see The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries at the Musée national du Moyen Âge with Rebecca Farrar and found another Narwhal tusk, or when we stumbled into the fanciest gardening tools shop I have ever seen – where I got somewhat bored and decided to explore up the mysterious spiral staircase only to find a hidden taxidermy shop on the second floor – called the Deyrolle Curiosity Shop that had dual narwhal tusks for sale (as well as a real mummy head!). Narwhal’s found me at the Rijskmuseum in Amsterdam and at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. recently as well.
Keep Narwhal’s Real! must be on the right path!