Mysterious mermaid stripped naked

Paolo Viscardi reveals what it takes to make a convincing, fake mermaid

I am fascinated by mermaids. But my fascination, I should add, is purely professional. It all began when, in my capacity as a curator of natural history at the Horniman Museum & Gardens, I was asked to help identify the composition of a mermaid in the collection.

Mysterious mermaid stripped naked
What is it made of? The mysterious merman at the Horniman Museum & Gardens. Photograph: Heini Scheebeli

At that point, I was familiar with the idea that tales of mermaids most likely arose from the misidentification of real-world animals like the Sirenidae (a family of American aquatic salamanders that lack hind limbs) or Sirenia (the dugongs, manatees and now extinct Steller’s sea-cow). I was less familiar with fake mermaids, taxidermy chimera supposedly made by attaching a monkey to a fish.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I peered into the case where the mermaid lurks in the Horniman’s Centenary Gallery, a space that struggles to strike a balance between the low light levels needed to preserve museum objects and the need for visitors to actually see the exhibits. With a torch, however, I was able to pierce the stygian gloom to reveal the suitably nightmarish visage of the “Japanese Monkey-fish” (as the museum’s register describes it).

Mysterious mermaid stripped
The stuff of nightmares. Photograph: Heini Scheebeli

This presumptive descriptive name led me to think about taxonomy rather than taxidermy: what should the scientific name be? Pseudosiren paradoxoides (literally, the “absurd pretend mermaid”) seemed an appropriate moniker. But in the interests of a snappier name and still assuming Japan was the country of origin, perhaps ningyo or “man fish” would be better. However, presumptions and assumptions are bad for the business of science, so I took it back to basics and, given the absence of feminine characteristics, I settled on “merman”.

“Is it real?” is the first question that most of the museum’s visitors ask and they are all dutifully disappointed by the equivocal answer that it’s a real object, but not a real merman. “What is it made of?” is the second most common enquiry and one to which we now have an answer.

It quickly became apparent that in spite of appearances the merman did not contain a trace of monkey. The main clue lay in the teeth, which lacked the typical simian pattern of having four incisors in the top jaw and four in the bottom. In fact, it lacked the standard mammalian feature of having properly defined incisors altogether, raising questions about just what teeth they were.

mermaid stripped naked
The distinctly fishy teeth of the Horniman merman. Photograph: Heini Scheebeli

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