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Object of the Month – The Mermaid

28 April 2023

Mummified or fake mermaids have been worshipped across history, most of which orienting from East Asia, and were originally thought to have been constructed in simple fashion. It was said that they involved connecting the chest, arms and head of a monkey with the body of a fish. More recent studies such as a 2014 study led by Paolo Viscardi, Zoology Curator at the National Museum of Ireland found that it was a very complicated structure involving carved wooden parts connected by joints and nails, a partly metal ‘skeleton’, a papier mache head, layers of cloth and clay, and both fish skin on the exterior and fish jaws in the head.

The mermaid that Paolo and his colleagues examined was one where the arms are extending ahead of the object, making it look as if the animal is crawling on land.

It’s a mermaid of this sort that features in the Monsters of the Deep exhibition as part of the Circus Tent display.

The new specimen, and the study devoted to it, reveals a similar story of complex manufacture, but this time for a different sort of mermaid. Some of these manufactured mermaids are posed in what Paolo and colleagues have called a ‘scream’ posture, where the arms and hands are close to the mouth, and this is the case for the new one. Its study has again confirmed that these mermaids – which are often dubbed ‘Feejee mermaids’ (based on the idea that they originated from the tropical Pacific) – were made by highly skilled artisans of numerous materials. The complexity of these ‘mermaids’ and the skill involved in making them explains why they successfully tricked so many people in Europe and North America that they really were seeing the mortal remains of a creature otherwise known only from myth and legend.

With thanks to Paleontologist Darren Naish for his contributions to this blog and to the wider Monsters of the Deep exhibition.

Learn more about the exhibition and dive in to explore a range of fascinating objects and displays here.

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