Who is Monkey-Fish?

Image © Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden

In June 2011, the Horniman Museum offered to loan a genuine Japanese monkey-fish to the museum of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP). The RCP said ‘yes’, of course, because who wouldn’t want a genuine Japanese monkey-fish?

The monkey-fish was not due to arrive until December, but the word of his coming spread through the corridors of the RCP like wildfire. What was monkey-fish? Who was monkey-fish? ‘It’s the missing link,’ said some, while others speculated about a chupacabra roaming 11 St Andrews Place after dark. An urban legend was born. I work at the RCP and it is likely that I played a small part in the creation of the RCP’s very own cryptid.

So while the bees are on their winter break, here is a post about another species, or two, sort of.

Fakes, forgeries and quacks

Image © Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden

The RCP held two lunchtime talks on Tuesday 20 December with experts from the Horniman Museum and Wellcome Library on the subject of ‘Fakes, forgeries and quacks’, inspired by the loan of the Horniman monkey-fish. Japanese monkey-fish, or mermen, were popular attractions during the 19th century and were touted as being real creatures. The second talk, ‘Making mermaids: a fishy business’ by Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden, traced the chequered past of monkey-fish revealing the history of mermaids, tales of fraud, media manipulation and shipwrecks. Among the audience were a number of RCP staff who were eager to find out more about monkey-fish, or ‘Alan’ as he is affectionately called.

Paolo took us on a journey of mermaid sightings from the Sirenia, or sea cows, mistaken for mer-folk by ancient mariners, to the thousand-year-old shrivelled ‘mermaids’ of Japanese Shinto shrines, to the famous Fiji Mermaid exhibited by master showman PT Barnum in the 1840s.

This was all very well, but what I wanted to know was this: who is our monkey-fish?

Who is monkey-fish?

X-ray of monkey-fish. Image © Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden

On Tuesday, 2 September 1919, a Japanese merman was purchased by, or on behalf of, Henry Wellcome at an auction held by Stevens London auctioneers. The auction catalogue listed the specimen as ‘Japan, Mermaid, paper-mache body, with fish-tail 20 in. long x 9 in. high’.[ref] The merman came to the Horniman Museum from the Wellcome Collection in 1982, and somewhere along the way it gained the name ‘monkey-fish’ because of its appearance of a monkey’s head and torso sewn onto the body of a fish. Mystery solved, or is it?

What is a monkey-fish?

CT scan of monkey-fish. Image © Paolo Viscardi, curator at the Horniman Museum and Garden

I was curious to know, what is a monkey-fish made of? Is it the mummified head and torso of a monkey sewn onto the tail of a fish? The Horniman Museum had investigated the makings of monkey-fish through X-ray and CT scans – and the results? ‘What is a monkey-fish made of? Paper, wood, string and clay, with fish bits and chicken feet!’ said Paolo. ‘But no monkey.’

Monkey-fish babies and the dark sibling, Paul

As if that were not enough excitement for one afternoon, we were told that there could be 100s of monkey-fish out there, waiting to be found. There might also be monkey-fish babies, which led to a twittering of ‘I want’ tweets.

The Horniman monkey-fish even has a sibling on display elsewhere in the UK – a dark twin called Paul. I may have made up that last bit.

Come and see our monkey-fish!

Me (left) and monkey-fish (right)

The monkey-fish will be exhibited alongside items from the RCP’s own collections, which involve an element of fakery – whether intentional or not  – until 20 January 2012, and is open Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm. No booking is required and entry is free. The exhibition area is closed on public holidays and for RCP ceremonies. The RCP museum holds various events all year round and information on how to visit is here.

Monkey-fish will return home to the Horniman Museum at the end of January, which also looks like a pretty interesting place to visit.