This is an article I wrote in 2005 when I was a graduate student in the Museum Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. My course work involved classes at the Milwaukee Public Museum. One assignment was researching a specific artifact. It turns out that the Milwaukee Public Museum has a Feegee Mermaid. This article, posted on Showhistory.com, was a distillation of the research I did for that assignment.
The Feejee Mermaid represents humanity’s attempt to deal with its myths. This physical manifestation of ancient myth hearkens back to other works of art, but over time became a myth in its own right, resurrected in the modern sideshows. Modern sideshow professionals keep the myth alive, entertaining crowds and preserving a specific part of American cultural heritage.
Throughout the centuries, there have been alleged mermaid sightings and exhibitions of mermaids before the Fejee Mermaid. The Fejee Mermaid (note the spelling) became Phineas T. Barnum’s greatest humbug and remains a staple in the Barnum literature. The humbug tradition is carried on with the Milwaukee Public Museum’s “Japanese Mermaid” (as seen above). Today modern taxidermy artists make “animal gaffs” for sideshows and a general audience. On the surface, their profession appears peculiar, but they actually carry on a tradition spanning hundreds of years in supplying sideshows and carnivals with fake animals.
Because the “Japanese Mermaid” is a taxidermy hybrid— a combination of fish and papier-mâché— it presents a series of challenges in a number of areas, including: cataloging, conservation, and collections. The fake animal was constructed out of the cheapest of materials for the entertainment of the sideshow audience, but has mythological, cultural, and historical associations that make it one of the more valuable and intriguing artifacts of the Milwaukee Public Museum.
For the rest of the article, click here.