Horniman’s “merman” is papier-mâché fake

Rob Sharp
  • By
  • Arts
  • Last updated: Wednesday, 23 March 2011 at 9:57 am
The Mermans head 300x225 Hornimans merman is papier mâché fake

London’s Horniman Museum’s 19th-century “merman” has the snarling lips of a monkey and the swerving scales of a fish’s tail. Long suspected to be a fake, the museum’s specialists have now launched an investigation into who made the object, first brought to Britain over 100 years ago.

The museum’s deputy keeper of natural history Paolo Viscardi is leading a team to test the “merman” to identify its origins, believed to be Japanese. Its head, long thought to have been the preserved remains of a real monkey, is in fact made from papier-mâché. Real fish teeth have been inserted into the item, which also includes a genuine fish’s tail. The item’s fins and teeth are currently undergoing DNA analysis at the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt to ascertain the exact location of their creation.

“Historically these objects were made in Japan as a way of making money from tourists,” said Viscardi. “Some monkey fish date back to 1,400 years ago. Circus great PT Barnum often exhibited what were purported to be mermaids in the 1840s and the popularity of such objects rocketed afterwards; many of the purchasers were credulous Europeans.”
The expert said its own “merman” was acquired at auction by the Wellcome Collection in 1917 before transferring to the Horniman in the 1980s.

“It’s the first time we’ve discovered it’s not actually made from a real monkey,” said Viscardi. “Such items have often been described as ‘monkey fish’ but that doesn’t appear to be how this one has been made.”
X-rays on the “merman” have ascertained that it contains a wooden neck and supports in the torso near the end of the tail. These provide shape and a solid anchorage for wires which provide an “internal framework” for the arms and body.

  • Brian

    Why call it a fake? They have always known it was a made object, what they have now learned is that it was not made the way they thought. As there are others, perhaps investigation of these will confirm if a monkey head was normally used, or if the Horniman’s exhibit is typical.

  • Paolo Viscardi

    The Feejee Mermaid that Barnum showed was marketed as the real-deal, Barnum even hired a stooge to pose as a natural historian and attest to its authenticity – but that was in the 1840s and since then these mermaids have been well know (albeit popular) gaffes.

    The interesting fact is that the traditionally accepted notion that these gaffes were made using fish tails and monkey heads may be erroneous. The Horniman specimen is all fish and papier-mâché, but on inspection of photos and specimens in other collections it appears that only very few use monkey – and those tend to be ones made later and in countries other than Japan. I am currently following up on information that may suggest that the original Feejee Mermaid shown by Barnum may also have been made without using monkey parts. Tricky to do, since the real specimen was destroyed in a fire and only illustrations remain.

  • Percy Porcelain

    Please can I use the ‘merman’ for my Twitter icon? Might help me win some arguments.

  • Mister_Bus

    Spoil sports!

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