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About This Object

This style of Mermaid has had a long tradition in Shinto shrines in Japan, with reports of examples that are reputed to be over a thousand years old. Japanese seclusion in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries meant that these Mermaids were relatively unknown in the West, except perhaps to the Dutch, who had a special trading relationship with Japan.

In the 1840s master showman P. T. Barnum displayed a famous example called the 'Feejee Mermaid' in America and England. This led to Mermaids of this kind becoming increasingly collectable curiosities in the West, particularly after trade links to Japan were established in the later part of the 19th Century.

The Horniman Merman came from the Wellcome Collection in 1982. The specimen had been purchased by (or on behalf of) Henry Wellcome on Tuesday 2nd September 1919 at an auction held by Stevens London auctioneers. In the catalogue from the auction, it was part of a batch of 65 lots described as "A Collection of Native Weapons, Carvings etc. Property of an Officer" and was listed as "Japan, Mermaid, paper-mache body, with fish-tail 20 in. long x 9 in. high".

Between the auction and entry into the Horniman collections the Merman gained the name 'Japanese monkey-fish', presumably because the head was considered to be that of a monkey - a common assumption made about this kind of specimen.

Recent investigation of the teeth, X-rays and CT scans all suggest that the specimen is constructed mainly of papier-mâché and parts of fish. DNA testing is currently underway in an attempt to identify the fish species used. This may help confirm whether the specimen was indeed made in Japan.

See full details Description

Specimen of Ningyo mermaid, Feejee mermaid or merman, Japan, with paper-mache body, and fish-tail originally from the Wellcome Collection.

Past Exhibitions

Details

Japanese Monkey-Fish; Merman; Mermaid (Ningyo)
NH.82.5.223
Natural History

1 item (description level: whole)

Broad category
Natural History: Zoology
Additional names, titles, or classifications
catalogue name:  Ningyo
current scientific name:  Ningyo
scientific name:  Merman
object name (Horniman Ethno.):  ritual & belief: representation
object name (unclassified):  Merman
catalogue title:  Japanese Monkey-Fish; Merman; Mermaid
common name:  Merman
common name:  Mermaid
common name:  Japanese Monkey-Fish
Place
Japan, East Asia, Asia
Additional place information
made or collected:  Japan 
Specimen form
wood; metal; clay; claw; varnish; tail; fibre; papier-mâché; skeletal material; scale
Additional specimen form information
material: varnish (coating)
material: claw (hands)
material: clay (head, torso)
material: skeletal material (jaw)
material: wood (neck, supports)
specimen form: taxidermy mount (overall)
material: papier-mâché (skin, torso, details)
material: scale (tail)
material: tail (tail)
material: metal (wire framework)
Measurements
overall: 212 mm x 525 mm x 210 mm
Additional measurement information
overall: 212 mm x 525 mm x 210 mm

Wellcome Collection
Provenance
donor:  Wellcome Historical Medical Museum  1919-09-02 - 1982-09-14
auctioneer:  J. C. Stevens  Undefined - 1919-09-02

Further reading
Viscardi, Paolo, 2014. Mysterious mermaid stripped naked. The Guardian, [online] 16 April. Available at: [Accessed 22 April 2014], 264, figs 2 & 3 (describes)
Viscardi, Paolo, Hollinshead, Anita, MacFarlane, Ross and Moffatt, James. 2014. Mermaids uncovered. Journal of Museum Ethnography, 28, pp98-116, fig 1(b) (describes)
Dorin, Alan, 2015. Artificial life art, creativity, and techno-hybridization (editor's introduction). Artificial Life, 21 (3), pp261-270, (discusses; illustrates)

Related subjects
object name (Horniman Ethno.):    ritual & belief: representations 
material:    papier-mâché 
material:    wood 
material:    metal 
material:    clay 
material:    claw 
material:    tail 
material:    skeletal material 
material:    varnish 

Record created 2010-07-05 by JHATTON
Record last updated 2018-09-05 by HMERRETT

Collections information

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