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Opening August 26, 2023

Monsters and Mermaids: Unraveling Natural History’s Greatest Hoaxes

August 26, 2023-February 11, 2024

Encounter 'monsters", "giants", and "lost civilizations" that confounded scientists and the public

Science advances by new discoveries, but what happens when these discoveries are fabricated? For centuries, hoaxers have crafted counterfeit artifacts, forged fossils, and conjured up non-existent species of animals. Some sought fame and academic recognition, others sought fortune, and a few sought only amusement. Simple hoaxes were often revealed within a day, but others misled scientific theory for decades. "Unraveled" explores the history of hoaxes, the motivations of the hoaxers, and the scientific methods by which great hoaxes were debunked.

The exhibition opens with cryptozoology, tackling the stories behind legendary hoaxes such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. These famous beasts have captivated the public for generations, but many lesser known hoaxes actually fooled scientists so convincingly that they ended up in museum collections.Visitors will encounter the real world inspirations for made-up species, including fossil plesiosaurs and distorted stingray specimens. A highlight is the Bruce Museum's own FeeJee mermaid, one of many such chimeric creatures to fool unsuspecting crowds. Those who paid to view what they hoped would be an exotic and beautiful creature were greeted by a ghastly beast stitched together from monkey and fish parts.

A section on archaeological forgeries delves into the history of the Mound Builder Myth. For thousands of years, American Indians created impressive mound structures throughout the Americas. During the 19th century, many archeologists held racist views and considered it impossible that the ancestors of modern American Indians constructed these works. They proposed instead that pre-Columbian settlers from Europe or the Middle East were responsible for the mounds and associated artifacts. Numerous hoaxers forged artifacts ranging from inscribed stones and tablets to weapons and crowns in order to provide "evidence" for the Mound Builder Myth. Unraveled features several of the most famous examples, including artifacts associated with the Davenport Tablets, the Michigan Relics, and the Newark "Holy Stones".

A selection of fossil frauds will delight and dazzle visitors. This series of displays opens with the tale of Piltdown Man, a clever forgery crafted from a human skull and an orangutan jaw that misled many of the world's leading anthropologists for decades. Visitors will then come face to face with America's greatest hoax, the 3,000 Cardiff Giant. Promoted as a petrified biblical titan, the Cardiff Giant swept up the nation in swirling debate before imploding into a sideshow. The exhibition concludes with a modern day hoax, a "real" centaur mounted to test the limits of public belief.     

All text for this exhibition will be available in both English and Spanish. (Todo los textos de esta exposición estaran disponibles en Inglés y en Español).

Image: Centaur

Credit: Barnum Museum. Skeleton assembly commissioned by Bill Willers. Photographer: Sklmsta

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