[Recorded 16 October 2019] In the mid-nineteenth century, showmen like P. T. Barnum were earning big money by displaying Japanese mummified mermaids to their British and US audiences. At the same time, naturalists were inspecting these specimens, trying to ascertain whether they were genuine, or what sorts of creatures they were composed of. Either way, these mummified mermaids made in Japan became part of the debates about the natural world order, taxonomy, and the theory of evolution. For centuries before that, it was common to include mermaids both in natural history books and books on monsters, alongside other mythical creatures. The material objects brought from Japan, exquisitely crafted, and presented with stories about the newly-discovered fertile exotic lands filled with hybrids and “missing links” such as platypus were bringing chaos into the natural history world that the ever-developing taxonomical systems such as Linnaeus’ were attempting to put back into order. This talk looks at the Japanese mummified mermaids (one can be found in the British Museum in London) and their role in the making of Darwin’s West and in the global scientific modernity by examining the material Japanese mermaid at the intersection of myth and popular culture and science and modernity in the Euro-American context.
Mateja Kovacic (Nissan Institute, University of Oxford)