The exhibit included first the mythical creatures themselves: amazing statues, costumes, images on ancient coins, and illustrations in old manuscripts. Then it went on to speculate about possible origins for the legends, showing manatees with mermaids and giant squid with the kraken, and demonstrating the way the backs of dolphins or whales might be mistaken for the coils of sea monsters when they appear in groups.
I'd been familiar already with the idea that stories of dragons and giant reptiles might have arisen from dinosaur fossils - but this exhibit took it further. For example, it linked the griffin with fossils of protoceratops, and the roc with giant birds like aepyornis, which lived in Madagascar before it became extinct (mind you, it didn't look much like a roc, but more like an enormous emu). The cyclops it said may have been a reinterpretation of elephant skulls, which have a large hole in the center (nasal passages) that could have been interpreted as a single eye socket.
Maybe some of you have heard about how Father Christmas used to dress in all sorts of colors like green, purple, brown, etc. until Coca-Cola decided to dress him in red? Well, a similar thing happened to the unicorn back in the middle ages! Early stories had the unicorn appearing with a goatlike body and a colored horn (the color varied). Then after traders appeared on the scene selling spiral narwhal tusks, all of a sudden the unicorn's horn started appearing as a white spiral! A sign that stories are traded along with objects... Something similar apparently also happened with mermaids, where stories handed from person to person across the world made combs and mirrors common accessories for mer-creatures that had originally been more distinct.
I also saw a picture of a hippocampus, or mer-horse; along with it came the explanation that there was once a belief that every creature of the land possessed a counterpart in the sea. What an idea - just bursting with possibilities for extrapolation!
There were also some very unusual creatures, many of whose names now escape me, but a few of which I'd like to share. The Australian bunyip, supposedly about the size of a small cow, usually said to be furred but which is sometimes portrayed with scales and/or feathers as well - this one started out a fearsome abductor, but over time became more benign. The chupacabra or "goat-sucker," quite a fierce and colorful creature which is said to act something like a vampire for livestock. The Nasca killer whale, which has extra fins, human hands, and carries a human head. Barong Ket, a lion-like Balinese good guy who fights the chaos sown by the evil witch Rangda...
If any of you would like to check out photos or learn more, you can either head on over to the Field Museum (if you're in Chicago and can go soon, since the exhibit is about to close) or go to the following url, which has a great collection of pictures and some of the explanations as well:
My mind swims with the possibilities. I hope you can find inspiration here too.