Thu. Jun 20th, 2024

This spring, a new Scottish museum will honor the​​ unicorn—the country’s national animal—by tracing its mythical hoofprints through history.

The Perth Museum opens to the public on March 30, and its debut exhibition is simply titled “Unicorn.” It’s billed as the United Kingdom’s first major show to survey the magical creature’s cultural history from antiquity to the present day.

“The unicorn has been an enduring yet enigmatic symbol throughout the ages; a component of medieval medicine, an emblem of Scottish royalty, a beloved children’s character, and icon of the LGBTQI+ community,” writes the museum in a statement.

This tapestry fragment, woven around 1500, made of wool and silk © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The museum’s ode to the unicorn will feature manuscripts, paintings, coins, sculptures, illustrations, tapestries and even shop signs. As Artnet’s Min Chen reports, the collection is made up of both historical loans and objects of local significance.

References to unicorns date back thousands of years. The Greek historian Ctesias mentioned them around 400 B.C.E., when he described a horse-like creature with a white body and a pointed horn on its forehead. The Bible also refers to a similar being, called a reʾem, which some versions translate as “unicorn.”

“By the 12th century, the unicorn had made its first appearance in Scotland, placed on the royal coat of arms by William I (also known as William the Lion),” wrote BBC Travel’s Mike MacEacheran in 2019. “The unicorn became the symbol of purity and power that Scottish kings and nobility identified with in the 15th century.”

Danny Jewel
This pendant of gold and narwhal tusk, called the “Danny Jewel,” was made around 1550. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In time, it became the country’s national animal. As Malcolm Offord, the U.K.’s government minister for Scotland, says in the statement, the unicorn has come to represent Scotland’s “enchanting history, culture and landscape.”

To showcase the creature’s long history, “Unicorn” will include artistic objects spanning centuries and mediums. Renaissance artist Luca Longhi’s famed Lady and the Unicorn painting will highlight the “enduring symbolism of the unicorn through the Middle Ages and beyond,” per the museum. Also on view is a 19th-century wand topped with a silver unicorn, which was produced around the time of George IV’s coronation in 1821. It was even used in Charles III’s coronation last year.

Some of the artifacts in the exhibition are composed of animal horns—just not unicorns’. “People once believed that the tusk of the dolphin-like narwhal, found in Arctic waters, came from unicorns,” according to the museum. The show will include an Elizabethan pendant made of narwhal horn and gold, called the “Danny Jewel,” and an intricately carved 12th-century narwhal tusk.

Unicorns Duncan Painting
Scottish artist John Duncan painted The Unicorns in 1920. © Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection

Alongside historical items, the exhibition will also feature contemporary representations of the unicorn: Toys, films and video games illustrate how the creature is “a familiar but shifting cultural icon,” says J.P. Reid, senior new projects officer at Culture Perth and Kinross, the trust that co-manages the museum. “Unicorn” will end with six newly commissioned works exploring how the unicorn became a symbol in the LGBTQ community.

“With a long, complex and often contradictory history, the unicorn has been a popular subject for contemporary artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers and activists,” adds Reid. “It is a symbol through which ideas like authenticity, belief, gender and nationalism can be explored.”

The Perth Museum is the result of a £27 million (roughly $34 million) transformation of Perth’s former City Hall. It will permanently house the famous “Stone of Destiny,” which has been used in coronations for centuries.


By Lala