'Fiji Mermaid; An Ugly Dried-up Diminuative Specimine'

'Fiji Mermaid' explores the tale of a fake mermaid used to evidence a desirable fallacy. Now discredited, it is a reminder of the ability of the interloper to reshape narrative and the need to view history itself as a powerful myth.

“When you have one, you have one.

When you have two, you got the space in between

Plus you've got the difference.

And the difference is where everything's opening up.”.

-Roni Horn

The word ‘hegemony’ derives from the Greek ‘hēgemonia’ meaning “dominance over”, or “leader”- contextually used to describe the exertion of one city-states power or influence over another. Hegemony is used to describe a form of domination which succeeds due to consent from the people’s or group being dominated. This is contrary to other forms of domination that are enforced through dictatorship, cohesion or force. It is thus used to describe inexplicably complex dominative forces, often which the people affected are unknowing of both its governance and their participation within it. 

“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”

-H.C. Anderson

Like a stopped clock, these things can, by coincidence, seem true twice a day. But if one is to stop and notice the diverse hues of every other passing moment of the day, we are to notice the cavernous hole left in the telling of time. The great voids in the records. The missing truths that without, we understand little of what it truly means to be a part of the passing of time. Of lives lived and lives still left to live.

The need for “decentralised forums for democratic cultural memory-making” (Miles Worner 2022) is embelic of a resistance towards hegemonic historiographic structures. 

[Also FeeJee Mermaid], is composed of the head of a juvenile spider monkey sewn onto the rear of a fish. The mermaid was supposedly caught near the FeeJee islands of the South Pacific, it was purchased off Japanese Sailors for approximately €6,000. It was purchased by Boston Sea Captain Samuel Edes who sold his boat to purchase the artefact. He is understood to have died penniless. The original had fish scales and hair over its body and beard and had a ‘pendulous chest’. The mouth is aggressively wide open showing the original teeth of the monkey. The artefact was returned to the U.S. and toured in slideshows as a mummified body of a hybrid creature- evidence of a creature half mammal and half fish.

There are several replicas in museums around the world, others are suspected to be constructed from a blue-faced monkey and a salmon. The fakes are referred to in Joe Nickels ‘Secrets of the Slideshows’ as “fakes of Barnum’s fake”. The original was exhibited in Barnum Museum America but is thought to have been destroyed in a fire in the museum’s collections.

Barnum, in his autobiography, described the mermaid as “an ugly dried-up, black-looking diminutive specimen, about 3 feet long. Its mouth was open, its tail turned over, and its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony,” a significant departure from traditional depictions of mermaids as attractive creatures.[5] - wikipedia

It comments on early museums and early collecting practices, which were a combination of natural history and the spectacle. The early grey-areas between the two where superstition, folklore and institutional origin stories played a large part in validating the authenticity of artefacts before the establishment of the scientific method and contemporary analytical techniques. 

The artefact is prime example of how the mechanisms we have at hand to inspect historic records are reflective of the present moment, and as artefact travel through time, whilst their componentry remains fixed, the mechanisms we use to inspect and analyse drastically change. 

"Museums are for everyone, forever." (National Trust)

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