The exhibit Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World at the Getty in Los Angeles is pretty impressive. I listened to a podcast episode with the curators on Getty Arts & Ideas show, and though manuscripts exhibits don’t particularly move me (think dark rooms, small print, Latin, teeny-tiny pictures), my interest was piqued. It deserved a visit. I took a group tour with a Getty docent this past Saturday, perused the exhibit even further afterwards, and followed up browsing the exhibit’s webpages on Getty’s site when I got home. I’ve taken it one step further here by giving you the inside scoop on the exhibit—some museum scuttlebutt about the exhibit’s promotional campaign and the need-to-know particulars that will make Book of the Beasts a rockstar exhibit, online or in person.
I love the image that greets you at the exhibit’s entrance (image above), a griffin with a person in its mouth. It’s whimsical. It’s also the image The Getty chose to use on its promotional banners displayed around the city of Los Angeles. Yet the choice stirred up major controversy according to the docent. The City of Los Angeles took issue with the griffin, which to the city council suggested violence against women given he (?) was holding a woman in its mouth. It’s a theme the City (and rightly so) is addressing through Mayor Garcetti’s domestic violence awareness campaign, yet it’s an example of political correctness gone wild. The Getty thought so too. Their response, according to the docent, is that the griffin is a mythical creature, a winged, beaked creature from a manuscript of the Middle Ages; it’s a far stretch that the image condones violence in the current day. The Getty got their way—the banners are up.
It always makes an exhibit more interesting when you hear a snippet of behind-the-scenes drama—it makes museums more real don’t you think?
What are ‘Bestiaries’?
Before I get into more drama (which is how the exhibit begins with a dramatic giant unicorn horn), I’ll give a brief description of what a bestiary is. Background is much needed for an exhibition; in fact it’s essential. It gives context. When background information is missing or skipped, the objects and descriptions in the exhibit won’t make sense, because then it’s just a bunch of stuff that doesn’t relate to each other or you. Without this step, it's hard for visitors to make connections to real life and why it matters.
Definition: Bestiaries (or bestiary) are books, also called illuminated manuscripts, from the Middle Ages (500 to 1500 A.D.) decorated with mythical creatures and animals along with text. Bestiaries describe the creatures and include stories using them as symbols of the Christian faith in allegories. Though first used by the church for religious education, bestiaries were also a source of entertainment and learning for members of the wealthy society due to their dramatic and gorgeous illustrations. Over time bestiaries led to more encyclopedic books of natural history that moved away from religious instruction. The first encyclopedia of natural history was The Garden of Health published in 1491 (image at end of article). In current day, bestiaries have influenced art, literature, and film.
Stupendous oak ceiling panels from France (1225 - 75). Depicts images from the bestiary, including the leaping unicorn, (bottom panel, center), as well as images of real animals, like the lion (top panel, center), shown frequently in bestiaries as the 'king of the beasts'. From 'Book of Beasts' exhibit at the Getty
Why the Exhibit is Not just a bunch of Boring Books
The Book of Beasts is one of the best temporary exhibits I’ve experienced at The Getty. It was ten years in the making according to the exhibit's senior curator. It’s far more than a display of old books—it brings together unique and provocative pieces of ancient and modern artwork and objects from select museums in North America and Europe that show the bestiaries' influence. Two of the most impressive objects are oak ceiling panels from France (image above) that show images of a leaping unicorn, an ostrich, lion and other real and mythical creatures.
Five out of Five Stars
The exhibit seems to flow chronologically through the gallery rooms which feature several manuscripts (under glass opened to specific pages), objects and art that highlight three distinct periods starting with, 1) the origins of the Bestiary: the books starting in the 1200s, objects and art works that incorporate ‘beasts’ with religious motifs, then moves to, 2) the influences of the bestiary on books, art and objects that emphasized the natural world—a shift away from the religion, and finally, 3) the last gallery room (pictured right) that focuses on current day, with objects and art of (mostly) living artists works that incorporate humans, animals and mythological creatures.
The exhibit feels relevant, approachable, even hip with the curators selection of 21st century art. As I’ve written in this website’s section on creating learning programs and exhibits for museums, they need to be relevant, so visitors can make connections to things they are interested in—to their real lives. Book of Beasts does so with its progression throughout the exhibit, you see how encyclopedias developed (think wikipedia), how images of animals were incorporated into art and literature, and finally to current day art objects with works that are large, dramatic. It’s thought-provoking, real.
I give the Book of the Beasts a solid 5 out of 5 stars, not only to the in-person exhibit but also the online elements included on Getty’s website.
How to Experience The Exhibit
The exhibition is must-see either online or in-person (until August 18, 2019) . The excellent web resources also incorporate social media channels brilliantly. To learn more, check out the YouTube video (below), peruse the web pages on the Getty’s online exhibit pages, and for more in-depth learning download the object checklist (PDF) which describes every object shown in the exhibit including the museum it’s from. There are also four videos featuring the curators discussing different beasts on ‘Beastly Banter’ available on Getty’s Facebook page. Enjoy!
More ways to explore Book of Beasts
You Tube video (4:18 min.) about Book Of Beasts featuring Senior Curator Beth Morrison