If mermaids don’t exist, how do you explain this?
The history of our attempts to solve the mysteries of the deep demonstrates our willingness to be wrong
I spent my mid-20s working as a gallery warder at the British Museum, a job which gave me ample time to reflect upon the artefacts around me. These included — tucked away in a dark corner that was unencumbered by information panels and unenticing to visitors — a real mermaid.
How to describe it? I scribbled sentences down at the time: no bigger than an infant, with its fists drawn up to its face and its mouth open in what was maybe a gasp, a snarl or a scream. It was brown and wizened and mummified — and perfectly dead. It was also an obvious fake: a monkey’s torso stitched to a fishtail, dating back to the 18th century, when it might have been exhibited for money — as others like it were, by such hucksters as American showman PT Barnum.
We warders chuckled at those who had created and set store by such a clumsy thing. But we couldn’t shake it off. I couldn’t, anyway, and if I directed visitors to “see the mermaid” with a smirk or a raised eyebrow, I also lingered to watch them squint and peer and recoil — and then go back to peer again. People can’t help staring at that mermaid: it’s a little envoy from a corner of the past almost inconceivably remote, but the shudder it induces in us is the same one that passed through our ancestors centuries ago...