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14th February 2012, 10:20am
Mummified mermaid valentines to be reunited after forensic testing
Disney she is not: the Buxton Mermaid Mermaids have been a source of curiosity and intrigue for centuries.

But when Anita Hollinshead – Conservation and Restoration Masters student at the University of Lincoln - came across a mysterious, apparently mummified, mermaid she was determined to find out more about her. She may have uncovered a rather ghoulish love story along the way.

Anita first discovered the source of her study, the Buxton Mermaid – thought to be of ancient Japanese origin and now held in the collections of Derbyshire County Council at the Buxton Museum and Art Gallery - whilst working at the gallery as Museum Development Officer for Derbyshire.  

“I remember thinking that the Buxton Mermaid didn’t look like the beautiful mermaids you see in paintings or read about. I instantly wanted to know what she was made of, how she was constructed, where she might have come from and the best ways to preserve her for years to come," she said.

Fake mermaids, sometimes known as ‘monkey-fish’, were popular in the 19th century, although there are examples dating back to the 16th century. Many were created by fisherman in Japan and the Far East and sold as mummified mermaids to supplement their income. They were usually bought by sailors as good luck charms, or by collectors who would display them in cabinets of curiosities or at sideshows.

Anita discovered some of the secrets to the Buxton Mermaid through a series of tests carried out on-site at the University of Lincoln.

Professor Belinda Colston, Director of Research at the School of Life Sciences, invited Anita to bring the Mermaid to the Forensic Conservation Department. Here, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Science and forensic photographer David Padley, captured the mermaid in more detail than can be seen with the naked eye and a forensic anthropologist was able to confirm that there was no human skeletal material included in the head – despite the mermaid’s skull-like appearance.

Further tests, including x-rays using a phosphorous plate, were then carried out with help from Chris Robinson and Jo Wright, at the Conservation Department at the University to determine how the mermaid was constructed.  This enabled Anita to conclude its construction was based upon an armature of wood and wire with a real fish's tail.  Other tests will, hopefully, establish what the mermaid's hair, 'skin', teeth and eyes are made from.

While discovering how the mermaid was constructed was on her list of objectives, finding out that she used to reside in the Wellcome Institution for the History of Medicine with a merman (now at the Horniman Museum) was a surprise. During her research, Anita contacted Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum, Paolo Viscardi. By sheer coincidence, he was in the process of researching the Horniman’s Merman.

Their research suggests that the Buxton Mermaid and the Horniman Merman were last together in 1982 in the collections of the Wellcome Institution.  As a result of this project, they will be reunited in March for a special exhibition and presentation of mermaid research at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. The exhibition runs from March 19 until May 13, during which time Paolo, Anita and Ross MacFarlane from the Wellcome Collection will present their research.

“It’s been so exciting to see the reaction that this research has generated. Mermaids really spark people’s imagination,” said Anita.  

"Although I have been able to find out quite a lot about the Buxton Mermaid she is still in many ways a mysterious creature and I don't think we'll ever uncover her whole story".

The next phase of Anita’s research will be the design of a stand to support the mermaid adequately whilst she is on display, and the creation of guidelines for the future interpretation, storage and display of the mermaid in response to the findings of this project.

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