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Merman: part monkey, part fish

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Asia 1942,01.1

Room 1: Enlightenment

    Merman: part monkey, part fish

    Possibly from Japan, 18th century

    A curiosity for a collector's cabinet

    This 'merman' is made up of the dried parts of a monkey, with a fish tail, and is probably mounted together on a wood support or core.

    It was donated by HRH Prince Arthur of Connaught (1883 – 1938), grandson of Queen Victoria, and was said to have been 'caught' in Japan during the eighteenth century. It was given to Prince Arthur by an individual named Arisue Seijiro.

    'Mermen', though more often 'mermaids', are well known in ancient, medieval and modern mythology across a number of different cultures. They are represented in two-dimensional art and sculpture, and examples like this one were also presented as curiosities in private houses and popular sideshows in Europe from at least the seventeenth century. A large number of these seem to have come from East Asia, especially Japan.

    The British Museum’s ‘merman’ is displayed in the Enlightenment Gallery as an example of the kind of ‘curiosity' that was found in early collections before the more encyclopaedic and reasoned approach to collecting that evolved through the 1700s. In this context it helps to show how museums changed during the eighteenth century from cabinets of curiosity to the type of museums we are more familiar with today.

    M. Jones (ed.), Fake?: the art of deception, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)

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