We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. I’m not scared! Oh, but that one takes me quite aback. My goodness, that is a bear…
It is a short-faced bear and it looms over eleven feet tall. We are reassured that it is now or at least currently extinct. These creatures usually swung along on all fours, but this one is facing the world monstrously upright. I come up to the bear’s midriff and it could idly rest a shaggy paw on my head. It shows how prosaic scientists are that they thought this animal’s most distinguishing feature to be its “short face.”
Others can take the science in hand; let us deal with the aesthetics. I’m admiring the prehistoric monsters in the National Museum of Scotland’s latest exhibition “Mammoths of the Ice Age.” None of them look wildly unfamiliar and they could be ineptly-made scale models of existing creatures. This could be an introduction to the fauna of some extremely remote northern province. The three most glorious monsters are displayed in the bend at the end of the exhibition hall: the short-faced bear, the American sabre-toothed cat, and the Columbian mammoth.
You might expect a mammoth to look magnificent and there is nothing apologetic about this one. If previous NMS exhibitions have explored the lives of Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine the Great and the Romanov emperors, here the crowns and coronets are gone, the palaces are redundant, and we see majesty pure and naked. This mammoth seems to be frozen alarmingly, as if in the middle of a sudden, vicious movement. Perhaps if you clicked your fingers, it would resume whatever it was doing and prance off, sweeping display cabinets and terrified visitors out of its path.
It even feels mildly dangerous to approach it. This mammoth could suddenly flop over and squash an entire class of schoolchildren. It looks cumbersome and grossly impractical; a creature with the flesh scraped off the front half of its skeleton. There are two beautifully-polished banisters gliding out of its face.
We are supposed to peer up at the mammoth from the same perspective as spear-brandishing hunter-gatherers, and it presumably took great swipes at these attackers with its tusks. But if a hunter became impaled on a tusk, neatly through the stomach, then the mammoth would have no apparent means of detaching them. It would have to stump about and shake and shake and shake until the hunter’s body dropped to pieces.
They dare you to touch some of the exhibits, and they all feel like hairy latex or some synthetic leather. Alas, they do not pump the authentic odours of sweaty mammoths and their dung-strewn tundra in through the air conditioning. Perhaps there is great debate within the scientific community about what these creatures really smelled like.
Earlier in the exhibition, we had met an exact replica of a baby mammoth named (at least by its discoverers) Lyuba, which had drowned in Siberian mud around 42000 years ago. This was not a monster – it looked like a colourless, squashed beach ball, with the trunk provided for you to blow through and inflate it again.
Back to the sabre-toothed cat. It is a prehistoric faux pas to refer to them as “tigers,” and they are distantly related to modern cats. You would struggle to shoo this one into the garden, however, since its skull is about the size of a small housecat. It is depicted descending from a clump of rocks, roaring or yawning, and there is an opening under the rocks which it spans like a bridge for small children to sneak through and make a getaway.
The exciting nature of this exhibition, with its interactive games and challenges, automatically makes small children race about like creatures on the surface of a pond. There are suddenly children everywhere all at once. “You must look at one thing at a time!” a mother calls over the bedlam.
This exhibition would give very small or sensitive children nightmares. I consider this to be a virtue.
An exhilarating and action-packed exhibition.
[“Mammoths of the Ice Age” runs until the 20th April.]