One of the best things about working in a museum is having access to amazing and unusual objects. Researching these specimens allows us to engage with our visitors and encourage a wider appreciation and understanding of our complex and fascinating world. One such object that I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to investigate is the Horniman merman.
The merman was transferred to the Horniman in 1982 from the then Wellcome Institute, under the title ‘Japanese Monkey-fish’. The specimen was a good match for a mermaid that was in the original Horniman collections in 1886, but which at some point in the late 19th or 20th century was lost, destroyed or stolen.
This drawing from a 19th century magazine shows a specimen very similar to the one in the Horniman collections today
The new merman was put on display in our Centenary Gallery around ten years ago and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it has generated a lot of interest from our visitors. Two of the most frequently asked questions directed at our Collections Conservation and Care department are “is the merman real?” and “what is the merman made from?” I was asked to help answer these questions, using my knowledge as a natural history curator with experience of identifying specimens from teeth and bones.
The Horniman merman lacks the teeth you would find in monkeys or apes, casting its 'monkey-fish' name into doubt
From the outset it was clear that the existing interpretation of the merman as a monkey sewn to a fish was wrong. The specimen lacks the teeth that you find in monkeys and apes, which have four incisors in both the top and bottom jaws.
So, if it’s not a monkey attached to fish, what is it? Close examination of the jaws revealed several rows of teeth – something usually seen in fish, yet the head of the specimen is not fishy in the least, raising yet more questions. To answer these we needed to see inside the specimen, preferably without damaging it, so we turned to X-rays and CT scans, which were kindly conducted without charge by the Saad Centre for Radiography at City University London.
by Paolo Viscardi, Deputy Keeper of Natural History