Smooth, slimy and snakelike

7th August 1998 at 01:00
MONSTERS OF THE DEEP. Exhibition of sea creatures. The Royal Armouries Museum. Leeds.

Monsters seem to be all the rage this year, so Laurence Alster isn't too surprised when he comes face to face with sharks, killer whales, giant squid and moray eels (above).

In terms both of size and profit, Godzilla looks set to become this summer's monster movie. In spite of lukewarm reviews, this tale of an 80-metre-tall lizard that rises from the sea to flatten Manhattan has audiences goggling at cinema screens throughout the land. By contrast, the leviathans of the Royal Armouries' Monsters of the Deep exhibition, are mere tiddlers. Unlike Godzilla, though, they are the more impressive and, in some cases, worrisome, for being real.

The heavies in this spectacular are giant squid, whales and great white sharks. But what are they doing here? The connection between weapons, armour and large aquatic creatures isn't immediately obvious.

Nicholas Boole, head of public relations at the museum, gives a straight answer: why not? "The main hall was available, we were looking for an opportunity to fill it, and someone came up with this idea. We've also learned from previous special exhibitions - on dinosaurs and on James Bond - that people who come to see these will often take in the rest of the museum. This makes it easy to cross-promote attractions and get more customers."

On the other hand, says Nicholas Poole, there is evidence, in the shape of some examples of scrimshaw (sailors' whalebone carvings) and a multi-screen presentation on the whaling industry, both borrowed from the museum's hunting gallery, that the project wasn't entirely arbitrary. But isn't this link between the monster theme and those elsewhere rather slender? "A bit tenuous, yes," he admits.

But that is largely immaterial because the result justifies the whole enterprise. In all but a few minor respects, this is a well-presented and occasionally enthralling project.

First impressions are not particularly brilliant: you begin with a rather ordinary, 15-minute film on the terrors of the deep, both mythical and real. Happily, it gets better in the first of two display halls.

This is filled with deep-sea sounds - squeaks, moans and a kind of constant, deep-water echo. Bathed in an aquatic blue light is a pair of unfamiliar, awesome-looking prehistoric marine animals, Tylosaurus and Dunkleostus. With fins, tails and eyes controlled by animatronics, they move well enough for one little girl to ask "Are they real?" She seems reassured when I tweak one of Dunkleostus's teeth without losing my hand.

The beasts in the main hall are equally animated. As to the main attraction, there is no doubt: an enormous great white shark whose top row of teeth lowers for attack, just like the real thing. This is where smaller children especially get their best depth charge, many looking, squealing and clutching each other as Jaws yawns horribly.

Those keen to know more can watch a lengthy video documentary, seek further information on an interactive computer program or, from within a shark-proof cage, pretend to confront the brute for real.

The great white is a hard act to follow, but the other exhibits fare well enough. A life-size killer whale, for example, its mouth opening and closing, mobile tail seemingly thrusting it along, is flanked by clearly written and informative display boards. Opposite the multi-screen display that forms part of a plea for an end to whaling, visitors can pull levers to show changes in the whale's anatomy while eating (jaw opens) and breathing (loud hiss of air). Further on, a more predatory note is struck by a tableau in which a giant squid makes short work of an eel, its eyes bulging as the squid's tentacles tighten.

If these and other behemoths are the obvious big draws, many of the smaller features are no less rewarding. Apart from some absorbing computer programs, there are sand-filled bins in which children can grope for real marine fossils, and hinged information blocks with question on top, the answer underneath. There's a table on which to make rubbings of engraved pictures of sea creatures.

Any gripes? Only if you're hoping for real fish, confined here to two tanks containing some luminous tropical species, a grouper and a moray eel. The latter didn't show when I was there. Then again, his tank was opposite the great white, a sight likely to keep anyone indoors for a while.

Royal Armouries Museum, Armouries Drive, Leeds, Yorkshire LS10 1LT. Tel: 0113 220 1999. The exhibition runs until September 6. The museum is open daily, 10.30am-5.30pm. Admission: adults Pounds 3.95; children Pounds 3.25. To combine this exhibition with a visit to the main museum: adults Pounds 8.95; children Pounds 5.95.

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