If mermaids don’t exist, how do you explain this?

Lifestyle

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

Imogen Hermes Gowar

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...

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