Thursday, 1 May 2014

Feejee mermaids: mine and Barnum's

It's always fun to play around with the classics, and I've enjoyed making this Feejee mermaid.  When compared to the picture of Barnum's mermaid at the bottom of the post, I think mine holds up fairly well.




I've tried to make the humanoid parts of the mermaid look sort of human, but not really.  The clawed hands and large, fish-like teeth help generate this effect, and I've also added scales along the spine and on the head.  Overall, I think the head is probably the least successful part of this sculpture.  It's fundamentally quite hard to make a properly detailed head on this sort of scale.


A better view of the face


My specimen has a small tear in the skin, through which you can see part of the ribs and spine.





The Feejee mermaid is still an iconic sideshow gaff, but it became famous more because of Barnum's advertising than because it was intrinsically interesting.  It would never have become the public sensation it was if Barnum hadn't used a sophisticated marketing campaign to make people want to see it (see here for more details).  

He made the mermaid appear more scientifically credible by getting one of his associates to pose as a British naturalist and claim he had brought the mermaid back from the South Pacific.  Barnum pretended he had asked this "Dr. Griffin" for permission to display the mermaid, but the naturalist had refused.  Barnum also orchestrated a media circus and advertised the specimen using pictures that showed the traditional view of mermaids as naked young women.  He realised that topless women made for more appealing advertising than pictures of the mermaid itself, which looked like this:



Picture from the Museum of Hoaxes

No doubt there were a lot of disappointed punters.

For me, one of the interesting things about the mermaid is that, although it seems to have been well made, it wasn't fooling everybody.  In fact, Barnum's advertising strategy partially relied on controversy about whether the specimen was real.  The media circus he built up around the mermaid was fueled by debate about its authenticity, and many people who went to see it knew it was widely acknowledged to be a fake.  They paid the admission fee anyway so they could see for themselves and form their own opinions.