Fort Lauderdale is swarming with sharks this summer, but don’t worry, it’s safe to go in the water: The sharks are in the museums.
The Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art is displaying a multimedia exhibition that features sharks by more than 70 artists from around the world. And at the Museum of Discovery and Science, a representation of a 50-foot megalodon — an extinct species of shark — is part of its prehistoric Florida exhibit.
Richard Ellis, a research associate at New York’s American Museum of Natural History and himself a wildlife artist, curated the Museum of Art show.
“The museum wanted to do an exhibition in connection with the Oceanographic Center at Nova Southeastern University,” Ellis said. “We started discussing all kinds of ocean creatures and narrowed it down to sharks.” In addition to coral reef sciences, shark conservation is an area of focus for the Oceanographic Center, a division of NSU.
Ellis has written and illustrated more than 20 books on marine life. He began painting sharks in the mid-1970s and says he was inspired by the shark’s shape, which he describes as beautifully designed. “The whole point is to have people say, Wow, that’s wonderful, I didn’t know that, and to appreciate life on the planet,” he says.
For the exhibition, Ellis selected almost 150 works, ranging from zoological renderings to fanciful contemporary sculpture made from recycled metal as well as photographs, videos and paintings. By turns art, history and science, the exhibition ultimately is advocacy for the conservation of sharks, many species of which are now endangered.
The exhibition opens with John Singleton Copley’s 1778 painting, Watson and the Shark,
on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first depiction that firmly established sharks as maneaters in the public imagination. Much of the work here is by contemporary artists, but indigenous art, pop culture and scientific specimens are there as well.
About the only major artwork featuring a shark that is not on display is Damien Hirst’s famous taxidermied shark in a tank of formaldehyde, which also had been on display at the Met. Hirst is represented by a resin sculpture from the museum’s collection, Dark Rainbow
, which depicts a shark jawbone with rainbow colored teeth.
Among the most engaging works in the exhibition are Marc Dando’s illustrations from A Field Guide to the Sharks of the World
, and Cuban artist Kcho’s sculpture, La Familia
Dando’s 114 drawings depicting more than 400 varieties of sharks fill a large wall at the museum with impressive scientific detail. Kcho’s three-part wood-and-plastic sculptures — mother, father and child — were done after the artist saw a video of a school of sharks feeding.
Ellis credits — or blames — Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws
and the 1975 Steven Spielberg movie for making everyone aware of and afraid of sharks. “For me, it’s the most influential novel ever written,” he says. One gallery of the exhibition is devoted to the movie. Original storyboards, illustrations, posters and memorabilia underscore the impact the film had on attitudes about sharks.
One misconception fostered by the novel and movie that Ellis would like to dispel is that sharks are “horrible maneating creatures ready to bite your leg off.” Worldwide, shark attacks kill about 20 people annually. Of the more than 400 shark species, only about seven are dangerous to humans, he says, and most of the rest are barely two feet long.
Ellis points out that 100 million sharks are killed every year, most for shark-fin soup, while others get trapped in long-line fishing nets.
One of the most provocative pieces in the exhibition is Judy Cotton’s oil painting, Shark Fin Soup
, which shows a butchered shark atop a blue-and-white porcelain platter. When she was at the museum for the exhibition’s opening, Cotton added blood dripping from the painting onto the gallery wall to emphasize the wanton killing of sharks for soup.
Nova Southeastern’s Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach provided scientific heft to the art exhibition, fact-checking the content, loaning shark fins and electronic satellite tags. The center also helped develop the exhibition’s family guide and mobile apps.
A downloadable program for smart phones and tablets is available in the exhibition and on the museum’s website. It offers gaming, shark facts and tracking. Interactive education stations throughout the exhibition answer questions about the habits of sharks and the need for conservation. The exhibition ends with suggestions on how visitors can help save sharks and a petition to ban the sale and trade in Florida of shark fins. ‘prehistoric florida’
The back story, so to speak, of sharks, which have survived virtually unchanged for millions of years, is on display at the Museum of Discovery and Science.
One of five exhibits in MODS’s new 34,000-square-foot EcoDiscovery Center is Prehistoric Florida
. The exhibit looks at the state’s prehistoric past and how it was shaped by changes in climate and sea levels.
Its centerpiece is a 50-foor model of the largest shark ever, a megalodon, which thrived 65 million years ago. Its closest living relative is the Great White Shark.
Visitors can step into the megalodon’s mouth without fear of getting eaten, which may be reassuring after seeing an adjacent display of one of its fossilized teeth — larger than a man’s fist.
If anyone’s fascination with sharks is not sated after the SHARK
and Prehistoric Florida
exhibitions, they can check out MODS’s coral reef, which features live nurse sharks … safely behind glass.