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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

This very odd figure has long been known as the "Horniman mermaid." It is, sadly, not a genuine mermaid but part of a group of similar artificial constructions which were imported to Britain from Japan in the nineteenth century. Known in Japanese as a ningyo, these creatures resemble legendary Japanese water spirits, and it is believed that they were often displayed during religious festivals in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Dutch traders, operating out of the treaty port of Nagasaki, acquired several that found their way into European museum collections. After the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867, more Japanese ports opened to European traders, and some Japanese artisans discovered that there was a substantial market in Europe for Japanese souvenirs, such as the dolphin skull (31.3.50/46) elsewhere in this section.

From this point, more ningyo appeared on the market, including the Horniman example. Although they are often believed to have been made by attaching a monkey's torso to a fish body, X-ray analysis has demonstrated that the monkey body is in fact entirely artificial, made from papier-mâché, and the fish of the rear half of a dried carp. The ningyo are not found in large numbers, and it is likely that only a handful of artisans were producing them for sale abroad in the late nineteenth century, as a the religious significance of the spirits to Japanese society began to decrease under the impact of modernisation.

Past Exhibitions


Japanese Monkey-Fish; Merman; Mermaid (Ningyo)
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
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)
overall: 212 mm x 525 mm x 210 mm
Additional measurement information
overall: 212 mm x 525 mm x 210 mm

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

Record created 2010-07-05
Record last updated 2019-08-15

Collections information

These objects are only a part of our collections, of which there are more than 350,000 objects. More information on the objects listed on our website.

This information comes from our collections database. Some of this is incomplete and there may be some errors. The database sometimes uses language taken from historical documents to help research, which may now appear outdated and even offensive. The database also includes information on objects that are considered secret or sacred by some communities.

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