Dragons on exhibition at Wilbur D. May Museum
The sign just inside the entrance to the Wilbur D. May Museum reads “Here be dragons.” It welcomes visitors to the latest attraction at the museum that’s known for the interactive exhibits it books annually to fill the late winter and spring months.
Locals may remember 2016’s hands-on herpetological exhibit Snakes Alive! In 2017, Toytopia brought together a collection of toys spanning decades and generations. Last winter, the museum played host to Hall of Heroes, an exhibit exploring the pop culture history and science behind superheroes.
From now until May 12, it’s The Lost World of Dragons, an exhibit that mixes animatronic dragons with a bit of science and mythology. The museum’s curatorial staff hopes the exhibit will appeal to dragon fans of all varieties—from those eagerly awaiting this month’s third animated movie installment concerning how to train dragons, to those anticipating April’s release of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which isn’t kid-friendly but also features dragons.
“We look for exhibits that are going to appeal to kids and to adults,” said Samantha Szesciorka, the museum’s assistant curator. “And we have a lot of flexibility, so we look for stuff that’s educational, to some extent, but also fun. Over the years, we’ve done some really cool, really different exhibits—and dragons are always a hit. … Every generation loves dragons.”
Together, the animatronic dragons on display in the exhibit represent the mythologies of cultures spanning from Mesoamerica to Asia. Each is accompanied by interactive interpretive materials discussing its origins in mythology and context in history. The dragons are large and look strangely right at home in the museum’s airy, plant-filled atrium and its darker, adjoining exhibit spaces.
“It’s this company we’ve been working with the last few years—Stage Nine out of Sacramento,” Szesciorka said. “We’ve gotten the last few years’ exhibits through them. … We’re just really happy with the quality of their exhibit design.”
Stage Nine Exhibitions was the company behind both Toytopia and Hall of Heroes. It specializes in incorporating light, audio, video and hands-on elements into its exhibits.
According to Szesciorka, “That’s sort of a trend throughout the museum industry, to sort of make exhibits less these static things that you just walk past or through and look at and read and into more immersive experiences for people—because a lot of people learn better that way, when they hear it or smell it or touch something. And why not? The technology is amazing right now to create these amazing experiences for people that can be educational at the same time.”
Troy Carlson—owner of Stage Nine Exhibitions—who was at the May Museum on opening day of the new exhibit, said his company has been approached many times over the years by museums seeking a dragon exhibit. The company began work on The Lost World of Dragons two years ago.
“We were fascinated with the mythology,” he said. “That’s how the story started.”
To learn more about the mythology of dragons, Carlson’s company partnered with Adrienne Mayor, a folklorist and historian at Stanford University.
“She’s kind of our curator who helped us understand all of the stories,” Carlson said. “What we found really amazing is that all of these cultures all over the world who had no communication or connection with each other all came up with stories of similar creatures. They’re all a bit different, but it was a way for them to make sense of things they didn’t understand in the natural world.”
Mayor has written extensively about dragon mythology as well as possible links between myth and real natural history—things like sailors mistaking whales for sea serpents and medieval travelers on Asia’s Silk Road taking dinosaur bones for those of dragons. Myth-dispelling theories like these are woven throughout the displays, from the red and white Welsh dragons in the atrium to the Asian Lung on the far side of the exhibit space.
But mythbusting isn’t the singular focus of the exhibit. Situated around the dragon displays are interactive stations celebrating the mythology and magic of the creatures. Near the Asian Lung, there’s a shadow puppet theater. In the hall connecting the atrium and other exhibit spaces, visitors can stop to make a crayon rubbing of the dragon of their choice from detailed plates embedded in a table. Other elements, like a display of chained boxes that rattle and emit growls are there for the thrill factor. Things like this and a virtual reality dragon-riding experience—13 and older only—are meant to help the exhibit appeal to people of all ages.
“Some content may be above the little kids, but we don’t want parents—we don’t want anyone—sitting on the sidelines,” Carlson said. “It’s like with the Toytopia exhibit—at first blush, you may think, ‘Oh, it’s a kids’ exhibit.’ But we wanted it to have toys that are from my generation and my dad’s generation, so there’d be a lot of good sharing opportunities.”
Another way Szesciorka plans to attract all-ages visitors is with extended, after-dark hours on certain days.
“People can come in and see it glowing in the dark, sort of after-dark dragons,” she said. “I think that will be a really fun way for people to see it, too.”
She’s also planning an adults-only night. This one’s likely to catch the attention of those who’ve been patiently waiting nearly two years for the final season of the aforementioned dragon-centric HBO series.
“So it’ll be a Game of Thrones-themed adult night,” Szesciorka said. “And it’ll be before the next and final season premieres. … It’s going to be so fun.”