The first major UK exhibition on the unicorn, Scotland’s ancient symbol, is announced as Perth Museum’s opening exhibition this Easter

Monday 22nd January 2024

Today, Perth Museum announces that Unicorn will be the first exhibition when the doors of the new museum open to the public on Saturday 30th March 2024, Easter Weekend.

Funded by £10m UK Government investment through the Tay Cities Deal and by Perth and Kinross Council, Perth Museum is a £27m transformation of the former City Hall.

Unicorn is the first major UK exhibition to explore the cultural history of Scotland’s national animal from antiquity to the present day. Through the material culture of this mythical beast the exhibition will explore themes such as Scottish Royalty and national symbolism that also relate to the objects and stories on display in the new permanent galleries, including the Stone of Destiny.

Pendant, 'The Danny Jewel', enamelled gold and a section of Narwhal's tusk, England, ca.1550. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Pliny to Pride, 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. The exhibition will feature spectacular objects including manuscripts, illustrations, paintings, coins, sculpture, tapestry and shop signs.

Star loans include the magical ‘Danny Jewel’, an English Elizabethan pendant jewel of narwhal horn and enamelled gold, usually on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. Renaissance pendants were sometimes made as amulets for protection against danger. People once believed that the tusk of the dolphin-like narwhal, found in Arctic waters, came from unicorns. The V&A is also lending an intricately carved narwhal tusk from the early 12th century. It is one of only two known medieval examples with carved decoration of foliage, human figures and serpent-tailed dragons.

A regal silver unicorn features atop the 19th century ceremonial rod or wand, part of the regalia of the Usher of the White Rod reproduced by Permission of the Trustees and Factor and Commissioner of the Walker Trust. Photography by National Museums Scotland

The stunning oil painting, Lady and the Unicorn by the late-Renaissance Italian artist, Luca Longhi (1507-1580), will be shown in the UK for the first time, on loan from the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo, highlighting the enduring symbolism of the unicorn in the Middle Ages.

A regal silver unicorn features atop the 19th century ceremonial rod or wand, part of the regalia of the Usher of the White Rod. Made around the time of King George IV’s coronation and visit to Scotland, this rod also featured as part of the Coronation of King Charles III last year. This represents a tradition that dates back to the inauguration of Gaelic kings and the rod was the primary symbol of a rulers’ legitimate authority. Although the Usher of the White Rod has not held duties since Scotland’s union with England in 1707, it is the counterpart to the role of the Usher of the Black Rod, now a senior officer in the House of Lords.

Narwhal tusk, carved, England, ca. 1125-1150 5 © V&A

Alongside spectacular and historical loans from prestigious UK and international collections, there will also be objects and stories of personal significance from the local community. From ornaments and images to memorabilia and toys, the display will highlight the enduring power of the unicorn in contemporary culture. There is still time to submit an object for this project at Perth Art Gallery or one of the participating libraries across Perth & Kinross. More information is available here.

The Unicorns by John Duncan. Dundee Art Galleries and Museums

UK Government Minister for Scotland Malcolm Offord said, The unicorn is an enduring symbol of Scotland’s enchanting history, culture and landscape, so it is fitting that Perth Museum has chosen this as the theme of its first exhibition.

“The UK Government has invested £10 million in Perth Museum as part of our £150 million support for the Tay Cities Region Deal. In total we are investing more than £2.9 billion to level up across Scotland.”

JP Reid, Senior New Projects Officer, Culture Perth & Kinross said, “From medieval tapestries and oil paintings, to toys, videogames and movies, the figure of the unicorn has been a familiar but shifting cultural icon for over 2,000 years. We are thrilled to be able to display a stunning selection of artworks and artefacts, including a series of newly commissioned sculptures. With a long, complex, and often contradictory history, the unicorn has been a popular subject for contemporary artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and activists. It is a symbol through which ideas like authenticity, belief, gender, and nationalism can be explored.”

The final section of the exhibition features six newly commissioned artworks exploring the ongoing struggles faced by the LGBTQI+ community worldwide. The artworks transform blank, life-sized horse heads into artworks that symbolise the theme of “Unicorn Hunting in 2023”. The featured artists are Alex Hayward, Ciaran Cannon, David Hutchison, GainAgain, Francis Macleod and Kathryn Hanna.

Unicorn will also feature a rich events and activities programme both within the exhibition and throughout Perth and Kinross for families, young people, and adults, thanks to generous support from the Northwood Charitable Trust.

Perth Museum is the new home for one of the oldest public collections in Scotland. Through Nationally-Recognised museum collections it will tell the story of Perth’s place in ancient and modern Scotland, as the nation’s first capital. The building has been designed by award-winning architects Mecanoo.

Tickets for Unicorn cost £10/£8 and are available to book now online via Perthshire Box Office; members of the Culture Perth and Kinross Supporters Scheme receive free entry. The scheme enables supporters to buy memberships whilst contributing to the preservation and celebration of the objects and stories housed within Perth Museum for generations to come.

Ticket cost excludes 10% booking fee.

perthmuseum.co.uk/unicorn