Centaur of Tennessee
The half-excavated body of a centaur -- part man, part horse -- fills a showcase in the main library of the University of Tennessee (UT). A rusted spear point is lodged in its belly. On the back side of the case are artifacts unearthed with the centaur, and text explaining that it was discovered in Greece in 1980, is "the best preserved and most complete centaurian specimen yet found," and probably dates to 1300 BC.
In fact, the centaur was assembled from the tea-stained bones of an old medical school skeleton and a Shetland pony. Its creator was Bill Willers, a biology professor at University of Wisconsin. He showed it around the Midwest for a few years. When its novelty wore off, he stuck it in a barn.
University of Tennessee art professor Beauvais Lyons heard about the centaur and encouraged UT to buy it in 1994. He then oversaw the construction of an impressive display case, carefully mimicking the oak and marble of the surrounding library. The centaur's placement and exhibit design are deliberate, Lyons said, allowing viewers to "experience deception" and develop critical thinking skills.
"Just because something looks true doesn't mean it is true," Lyons said, noting that not every nonfiction book in a library is truthful, nor is it a library's job to police the truthiness of its collection. "Fostering skepticism about sources of information is part of the educational mission of the University," he said. "The centaur reminds us to not necessarily believe everything we read or see."
Professor Lyons said that there was much initial discussion at UT over how, or if, to "nudge" viewers that the centaur was fake. Academics argued that the whole point of the centaur was to let visitors decide for themselves. Administrators fretted that simply leaving the centaur in the library might make it seem that the University endorsed the existence of mythical beasts. A committee was formed and a compromise reached: the text, "Do you believe in centaurs?" was added to the front of the case.
We asked Professor Lyons, who's spent years observing visitors' reactions to the centaur, if certain people seemed more prone to believe the unbelievable than others. He tactfully dodged the question and answered that, "I think everyone eventually figures out that the centaur is not real." It's popular with the library staff, he said, and also with young children, whose tiny handprints frequently smudge the display's glass top. Lyons said that one summer he met a family that had driven to the library all the way from central Florida, just to satisfy their eight-year-old's interest in seeing the centaur.
Bill Willers, perhaps realizing that he'd lost a good thing, had a second centaur built and displayed in a wildlife museum in Arizona. He then sold it to the P.T. Barnum Museum in Connecticut, where it remains a featured example of the kind of truth-bending artifact seen in old-fashioned dime museums -- and in at least one modern university library.
Note: the Centaur of Tennessee should not be confused with the Center of Tennessee, which is elsewhere.