In fact, we used two different research approaches. The first was to contact Ross MacFarlane at the Wellcome Library, who started searching through their extensive archives for information on where they originally got the specimen. Our second approach was to consider the wider cultural context of this kind of specimen in an effort to understand where and why it was made in the first place.
The first line of enquiry quickly provided some useful information, when Ross tracked down a catalogue from Stevens’ Auction House for 2nd September 1919, at which an agent of Henry Wellcome purchased the specimen. The entry read "Japan, Mermaid, paper-mache body, with fish-tail 20 in. long x 9 in. high – Property of an Officer". This was our specimen and it was from Japan, but it was interesting to note that there was no mention of ‘Monkey-fish’ in the catalogue entry – so where did this idea of a monkey attached to a fish come from?
Our second line of enquiry helped provide an answer to that question. After trawling through literature, websites and other museums we realised that historical manufactured mermaids like the Horniman specimen are not that rare, although there appear to only be a few ‘species’ out there. The original type are the ningyo (meaning ‘human-fish’) represented in some Japanese Shinto and Buddhist shrines, but which were also on show at 18th and 19th Century misemono carnivals in Japan, where all sorts of works of art and craft were displayed. The ningyo mermaids tend to have a strongly curved tail with their hands raised to their face in an attitude of terror – reminiscent of the Munch painting ‘The Scream’.
by Paolo Viscardi, Deputy Keeper of Natural History