The highly august, if sometimes playful, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, will mount an exhibit next year featuring mermaids, dragons, griffins, and other fantastical creatures.

Is it presenting "fake news"?

"Oh my gosh!" said Jennifer Sontchi, senior director of exhibits and public spaces, when asked the question.

"Oh, no. No. No. … Not at all. No."

"This is about myths and how myths are connected to the natural world," she said.

Stories of mermaids, for instance, are common in virtually all parts of the world. The creature is often depicted holding a mirror and a comb.

Mami Wata, for instance, is a popular and powerful African water spirit. Most often portrayed as a mermaid, she heals the sick and brings good luck to her followers. But she also has a temper and will drown people who don't obey her.

Stories of such watery human spirits are legion.

Illustration of Narwhals from “Life of Animals Part 1, Chapter 12: Sirens by AE Brehm
gutenberg.org
Illustration of Narwhals from “Life of Animals Part 1, Chapter 12: Sirens by AE Brehm

"Some people speculate that the narwhal is the origin of the mermaid or the manatee is," Sontchi said. Columbus, in fact, reported mermaids in Caribbean waters. The sightings could have been of manatees. (Columbus noted that "they are not half as beautiful as they are painted.")

Terrified European sailors during that same age of exploration also described a long-armed creature that was so big, it tossed ships around like playthings.

Could such tales have been inspired by early sightings of the giant squid, a 10-tentacled creature as big as a bus?

Did dinosaur fossils inspire stories of dragons?

"Basically we're telling the tales of these creatures and how they're connected to the natural world and somehow not," said Sontchi. "That's what's fun for us."

The academy, Sontchi assures, is not presenting the mermaid as anything other than the subject of myriad stories and folk tales.

"It's real information about real stories and real myths," she said of the exhibit. "We're not telling people the unicorn exists. We are telling them about real stories."

"Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids" opens at the Academy on Feb. 16 and will run through June 9. Another just-announced academy exhibit will present more traditional fare. "Dinosaurs Around the World" will open June 30 and run through Jan. 20, 2020.