Greek “monsters” reimagined in international touring exhibit

Greek monsters are big in our house. And, I blame Percy Jackson.

Ever since my nine-year-old son opened to the first page of “The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan. Many a dinner conversation has centered on the MinotaurCyclops, Medusa, and Cerberus – and so many other Greek monsters.

With each chapter came new adventures for the young heroes on their heroic quest. And, with each adventure, came a new monster to battle. And, with each new monster, came adventure, intrigue, curiosity and questions.

My older son wasn’t the only one actively living in the literacy world of Greek monsters (and demigods) created through the skillful words of Mr. Riordan. I dug into the books. And, then my husband started in on them. And, then my younger son watched the movies…

We were all hooked. And, together, we could relive each battle, each struggle, each victory, and yes, each monster.

But, for us, the Greek monsters were still words on paper and images in our own minds – just as they’ve been for so many other people across time. Until we toured “The Greek Monsters” exhibit at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.

Myths and monsters help explain forces of nature – and our own emotions

unnamed-69The Greeks created myths to explain just about every element of the human condition, as noted in the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Earthquakes were said to happen whenever Poseidon crashed his trident on the ground. The movement of the sun was said to be all thanks to Helios driving his chariot across the sky. And, Persephone’s bi-annual descent into Hades was said to cause the change in seasons.

But, that’s just the gods. The monsters helped to explain other things like chaos and lack of reason – something that’s quite evident in the centaur, which is half-man and half-horse.

Yes, their very being is based on speculation, imagination and storytelling. It can make us wonder if we truly understand these Greek “monsters?” And, if they really are “monsters” after all?

Could simply be misunderstood creatures who’ve been categorized as “monsters” because they were different?

Greek design group explores our perceptions of Greek “monsters”

unnamed-67Last year, the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago became the new, temporary home of a national traveling exhibit, “The Greek Monsters.”

Envisioned and built by Beetroot Design Group, based in Thessaloniki, Greece, the exhibit features the same Greek monsters my family and I have discussed ad nauseam at the dinner table. But, had only been able to mentally envision in our heads – until now.

The exhibit originally opened at the AlteMunzein Berlin in 2011. Since that time, it’s traveled to Essen, Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece, as well as Belgrade, New York and now Chicago until May 2015.

The “monsters” that come to life in the travelling exhibit are from the book, “Misunderstood Monsters of Greek Mythology,” which Beetroot had just created and was about to publish at the time. In the book, the “monsters” do not call themselves “monsters.” Rather, it’s a name born out of the fear and misunderstanding of these creatures.

Yes, at the root of the exhibit, is a lesson to be cautious about making generalizations and grouping people or things together because of your fear of not knowing who or what they are or where they come from.

Beetroot’s “monsters” win your heart with their emotions 

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When conceptualizing the exhibit, Beetroot decided to portray the “monsters” from a positive and humorous point of view. The group decided to design the exhibit so that it includes an important underlying message: that people should think twice before judging someone without really getting to know or understand them.

Beetroot’s “monsters” are brought to life through sculpture, paintings, multimedia, and interactive displays, using only three colors – orange, black and white – in a historical nod to the color palate of ancient Greek pottery. Despite the limited color palate, the true personalities of each “monster” shines through via how their poised, the expressions on their face, and how you are able to interact with them.

For example, a larger-than-life-sized Minotaur isn’t scary. Rather, it appears to be shy. Why? Because it hides its face behind one of its hands. That is something Beetroot purposely did to show that he’s an outcast.

The exhibit also features a “Create Your Own Monster” wall with magnetized cutouts that let you build your own “monster” simply using your imagination. My sons could have done this for hours. And, I have to say that none of the “monsters” they created were scary – at all. Rather, they used the available eyes, claws, fins and tentacles to build humorous characters all of their own.

New “monsters” born in each host city

unnamed-68At this time, there are more than 20 mythical creatures featured in the exhibit – but the number keeps growing as the exhibit travels to new cities.

The exhibit first opened with nine “original” monsters. Since then, another 15 have joined its ranks.

Before the exhibit opens in a new city, Beetroot creates a new “monster” to join his brethren, with each one honoring the new city where it first went on display.

For Chicago, Beetroot designed a Hydra, a many-headed water serpent. Its connection to the water is where its connection to Chicago lies – and our Lake Michigan to be exact.

The Hydra was one of my sons’ favorite “monsters” in the exhibit. Not just because it was “born” here, but because you could peel off sheets of paper in a creative, interactive nod to the fact that when you cut off a Hydra’s head, another one grows back in its place.

Poems paired with each Greek “monster”

unnamed-66Typically, as you walk through an exhibit, you can count on reading bits of factual information about the work or art on display. But, that’s not the case with “The Greek Monsters” exhibit.

Instead, next to each “monster,” there is simply a poem.

By using poems, Beetroot was able to conceal – but not abolish – the mythological background of each “monster.” In doing so, visitors can focus on the new concepts, emotions and personalities of each one as presented throughout the exhibit.

And, that worked for us.

Instead of relying on the text to inform our perceptions of the “monsters,” we were left to view each one in its own way – and make our own personal decisions.

And, I know it will be hard for us to ever really view the “monsters” as just monsters. For now we know them as individuals – not generalizations. And, that is what Beetroot would have wanted – from us and for everyone else would will be able to view, experience and understand the “monsters” as they continue their journey around the world.

Are you and your family fans of Greek Mythology? What are your favorite books or movies that feature (or give a nod to) Greek heroes and monsters? What are your favorite Greek monsters? Do you think Greek monsters have gotten a bad rap? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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