A Digital Curiosity Cabinet


Merman, British Museum

Merman, © British Museum, London

Merman, © British Museum, London

Many museums across the UK have mysterious creatures, called mermen in their collections. This merman was thought to have been ‘caught’ in Japan in the 18th century. The Japanese word for merman is ‘ningyo’, which literally means, ‘man fish’. Mermen have long held an important place in Japanese culture. One Shinto temple in Fujinomiya, Japan has a mermaid mummy that is thought to be 1,400 years old. According to one ancient Japanese legend, a fisherman caught a merman in his fishing net. The merman with its dying breath predicted a time of great prosperity, and a fatal epidemic. The fatal epidemic could only be prevented by owning a merman.

Another tale is of a young girl called Yao Bikuni. She eats the flesh of a merman and becomes immortal. She outlives several husbands, and then decides to become a travelling nun. After many centuries have passed, she becomes so miserable that she chooses to take her own life. After hearing these stories, suddenly everyone wanted a merman of their own! They were bought to display as curiosities in the 18th and 19th century. Ofcourse, these mermen were all fakes. Most of them are made of part monkey, and part fish moulded together.

This merman is made of the dried up parts of a monkey, with a fish tail. It is probably mounted together on a wooden support. It was donated to the British Museum by Prince Arthur of Connaught in the early 20th century.

Rock Crystal Skull, British Museum

Crystal Skull, 19th century, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

Crystal Skull, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

This crystal skull was carved from a single block of rock crystal. The British Museum records show that it was bought in 1867 from Mr Frederick Kunz. Mr Kunz was an obsessive collector of gemstones, amassing around 4,000 precious stones, by the time he reached the age of 20. The jeweller describes his fascination with the sparkling gems:

‘Every boy has his passion – his collection of stamps or coins, or marbles or what not, and the only difference between another boy’s and mine was that I never outgrew it. Given a fresh excavation today, I am just as apt to go down on my knees and begin grubbing about as I was at the age of ten.’

He claimed that he acquired this skull from a Spanish officer who brought it back from Mexico. Aztec art is characterised by skulls, death and the beautiful blue turquoise stone. Frederick Kunz sold the skull to an antiquities dealer, and it was later bought by the British Museum. But scientists have discovered that it was actually all a big fraud! In 1996 an international team of scientists had a closer look at the skull with an electron microscope, and found machine cut marks. These cut marks show that the skull was made with a rotary cutting wheel. Rotary cutting wheels were introduced to Mexico after the Spanish Conquest in 1521. This sparkling crystal skull was actually made in the 19th century.

Chi Chi, the Naughty Panda

Chi Chi the Panda, © The Natural History Museum, London

Chi Chi the Panda, © The Natural History Museum, London

This innocuous panda quietly munching on some bamboo leaves inspired the internationally recognized logo of the World Wildlife Fund. Sir Peter Scott, one of the founders of the WWF suggested that the cute cuddly bears would be a big hit with the public. The panda was named Chi Chi, which means ‘naughty looking girl’, unless it is mispronounced. If you say Chi Chi in the wrong Chinese tone of voice, it means prostitute. Chi Chi was certainly no whore. She was not in the slightest bit interested in breeding. There were several unsuccessful attempts to mate her with An-An a male panda at Moscow Zoo. Apparently she did ‘entertain’ An-An twice, but produced no offspring.

Chi Chi was captured while she was still a baby in China’s Sichuan province in 1957 and spent her first few months in Beijing zoo.  She travelled from Beijing to Moscow to Berlin, then Frankfurt and Copenhagen before arriving at Regent Park’s London Zoo in 1958. The zoological society had stated at this time that they would not encourage the collection of rare creatures such as the wild panda. But the adorable cub was too irresistible to refuse. The society made a special exemption for Chi Chi, as she had already been collected.

Chi Chi was an instant hit at London zoo from the moment she arrived. She was all over the front pages, much like Guy the gorilla another celebrity at London Zoo. She was quite the character and lived up to her name as the naughty little girl. She was always getting up to mischief and trying to escape. The nation mourned when she died in 1972. Her skin was donated to the museum so that the international icon could be preserved for ever. The innocent bamboo munching pose doesn’t seem to quite capture her extravagant and mischievous character.

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery,  c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery, c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

The dodo is one of the most famous extinct species in history. The name probably comes from the Portuguese word, ‘doudo’, meaning foolish or the Dutch word ‘dodoor’, which means sluggish. The dodo has been immortalised in popular film and fiction. Lewis Carol was so impressed by a specimen at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, that he created a talking dodo character in his book, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The poor dodo has been accused of being so stupid and obese that it caused its own extinction by failing to outrun its captors. We now know that isn’t true.

The dodo was only found on the isolated island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, over 800Km from Madagascar. Portuguese settlers reached the island in the early 16th century, but they made no record of their encounters with the curious flightless bird. The first reports of a large, clumsy, flightless bird came from Dutch settlers in 1598. The Dutch nicknamed the bird, ‘Walgvogel’ meaning disgusting, as the meat from the bird was tough and unpalatable. Within a hundred years of its discovery, the entire species was wiped out. The dodo was hunted for its meat and for specimens to be brought back to Europe for scientific study. However, this activity was not the main cause for the extinction. The Dutch settlers introduced new predators onto the island, such as dogs, rats, cats, pigs and monkeys, which ate the dodo’s eggs.


Surprised! By Henri Rousseau, 1891

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

Rousseau paints extraordinary visions of exotic jungles, lion hunters and fierce jaguars that remind us of Rudyard Kipling’s, ‘The Jungle Book’. He had never seen a jungle before, so these pictures are painted entirely from his own imagination. He created his own fantasy jungle scenes using domestic pot plants and tropical specimens from Paris’ botanical Gardens. His animals were inspired by visits to see stuffed animals in museums. His work includes fantastical situations that would never happen in the natural world; from a jaguar attacking a horse in a jungle, to a monkey shooting a hunter.

Henri Rousseau was born in 1844 in Leval in Western France. He left his job as a gatekeeper at the Paris Municipal in 1893 to pursue a career as an artist. He was called a naïve artist because he had no formal training at an art school. Academics at the time criticized his work for his poor handling of proportion and perspective.

The tiger in this painting stands ready to pounce on any unsuspecting prey, in the midst of a violent storm. Lightning flashes in the background and the rain falls in heavy sheets. The entire painting is covered with delicate transparent stripes of white and grey, which represents the heavy downpour. The slightly unrealistic, surprised tiger is based on a range of sources including oriental prints and the domestic cat.

The Tale of the Cursed Amethyst

The Cursed Amethyst

The Cursed Amethyst, © The Natural History Museum, London

Amethyst is a violet variety of the quartz stone, that is often used in jewellery. The name comes from the ancient Greek word and it literally means, ‘not drunk’. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought that the stone could be used to prevent drunkenness. They used amethysts in drinking goblets and jewellery.

This stone originally belonged to a 19th century writer called Edward Heron-Allen. He had many talents and enjoyed writing about a wide variety of subjects from violins, to Persian Literature, to Natural History. He also write books on palmistry, the occult and the supernatural. Heron-Allen couldn’t wait to get rid of this stone, as he claimed that it was ‘trebly cursed’ and was ‘stained with blood and dishonour’.

The stone was donated to the Natural History Museum by Heron-Allen’s daughter along with a letter from her father warning curators not to handle it. Heron-Allen wrote that the stone, ‘was looted from the treasure of Temple of the God Indra at Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1855, and brought to this country by Colonel W. Ferris of the Bengal Cavalry. From the day he possessed it, he was unfortunate.’

Some curators think that Heron-Allen may have made up the myth of the Cursed Amethyst to publicise a short story that he wrote in 1921, under the pseudonym Christopher Blayre, called, ‘The Purple Sapphire.’ So far, no curators have died from handling this stone. But who knows…? What do you think?

Guy the Gorilla, The Natural History Museum

Guy, a Western Lowland Gorilla,  © The Natural History Museum, London

Guy, a Western Lowland Gorilla, © The Natural History Museum, London

Guy the Gorilla was a superstar from the moment he arrived at London Zoo in 1947. He was originally born in what was then French Cameroon in Africa. He was captured as a baby by Paris Zoo, and sent to London Zoo on Guy Fawkes Night in 1947. The one year old gorilla was so terrified by the fireworks that wouldn’t settle, until a keeper volunteered to sleep next to him.

Guymania broke out in the 50s and 60s and regular zoo visitors were allowed to feed the crowd pleasing beast. He used to run from one end of his cage to the other to growl, grizzle and generally show off to spectators. One of his favourite tricks was to catch sparrows that flew into his enclosure,  hold them in his hand for a while and then let them go. People didn’t know what a gorilla looked like and they had never seen such a huge animal before. He weighed 240 Kgs, which is nearly 40 stone!

He died from a heart attack after a dental operation in 1978. He was aged over 35 years old and was very overweight. His death made the front pages of all the major newspapers. His skin was sent to the taxidermists at the Natural History Museum, so that the larger than life gorilla could continue to capture the imagination of members of the public. His skin was put in a freezer for three years. Being frozen for such a long time caused the skin to shrink!

When the taxidermists tried to mount the skin they found that it would not do up at the back, if it was stuffed to Guy’s original measurements. The team of three taxidermists had to decide whether to slim him down or patch up the back. They decided to patch him up at the back so that you can see him in all his glory. This extraordinary specimen shows how the art of taxidermy has progressed since the Victorian times. The taxidermists were able to look at photos and camera footage to try to recapture Guys vibrant personality. Gorillas are amongst our closest relatives and they do think and feel in a similar way to us.


The Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Pissarro, 1897, The National Gallery


The Boulevard Montmartre by Pissarro

The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, Pissarro, 1867, © The National Gallery, London

This beautiful painting provides a snapshot into the world of the French impressionist painters. In the 18th century Montmartre was the artistic hub of Paris and it still is today. If you stroll down the streets of Montmartre today you will probably be stopped by artists offering to draw your portrait for a fee. You can imagine Picasso drinking absinthe with Matisse at a bohemian cafe, or Pissarro admiring Edgar Degas’ paintings at his studio.  Camille Pissarro was a cool character and remained friends with many of the more temperamental Impressionists, such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Cezanne.

The blurring quality of the new electric lights in this painting suggests the refraction of the light from the rain on a wet day. Refraction is the bending of the light, when it passes through a substance such as water. It creates interesting and magical light effects. Carriages are lined up on the left side of the road, waiting to pick up theatre goers emerging from Moulin Rouge around the corner. Throngs of people stroll past the shop fronts, undeterred by the bad weather. The bright white electric light from the street lamps contrast with the warm, orange glow of gas lights from the shop windows. Gas and electric lighting were modern developments, making them a fitting subject for such a progressive artist.

Pissarro painted fourteen street scenes showing this view, in different lighting and weather conditions. He wrote in 1897, ‘I am delighted to be able to paint those Parisien Streets that people have come to call ugly, but which are so silvery, so luminous and vital…This is completely modern!’

Pissarro was born in 1830, in the Danish Virgin Islands, off the Gulf of Mexico. He moved to France in 1855 and went to school in Paris, where he was inspired by Impressionists, such as Monet and Manet. Pissarro was sometimes disheartened that his work was not well received by the public. But his son Lucien reassured him, ‘You are surprised that the public does not look at your paintings and you explain this by supposing they lack something essential. But you do not realize that it is only a question of fashion? You are too reserved, you have ideas that are too expansive, and you are too sensible to fashionable. Indeed, you have yet to be discovered.’ This is true of many great artists and innovators, who were not appreciated in their own time.

An Old Woman by Quinten Massys, c. 1513, The National Gallery

An Old Woman, Quinten Massys, c.1513 © The National Gallery, London

An Old Woman, Quinten Massys, c.1513 © The National Gallery, London

Do you think of art as something beautiful? Why has this ugly old woman been chosen for display at the National Gallery?

Quinten Massys enjoyed painting satirical pictures which had a moral message. This withered old woman is wearing a very unflattering low cut Italian gown, which does not suit her. Massys is mocking her and warning against the follies of being ‘mutton dressed as lamb’.

Medical research has shown that this unfortunate woman was actually suffering from Paget’s disease, a chronic disease which enlarges and deforms the bones. This is a very severe case as her jaw bones have been enlarged, her upper lip extended and her nose has been pushed upwards.

It was thought for a long time that Leonardo Da Vinci inspired Massys’ paintings, but recent research has now revealed that it was actually the other way round. Massys inspired Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the greatest painters of all time!

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Illustration by John Tenniel from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

Da Vinci was not the only artist inspired by Messys. John Tenniel was a British artist in the 19th century who created illustrations for Lewis Carole’s  fantastically imaginative book, Alice in Wonderland. Tenniel’s drawings of the extravagant, overbearing and wicked Ugly Duchess character were inspired by ‘An Old Woman’. In 2010, Tim burton created a visionary film version of Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonhma Carter. Helen Bonham Carter plays the ugly duchess character, who has a ridiculously large head with exaggerated features. It is a great example of how a painting of an ugly old woman from 1513 can influence popular culture today!


Love is the Drug, or is it? Sandro Boticelli’s Venus and Mars


 Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, about 1485, © The National Gallery, London

Sandro Botticelli, Venus and Mars, about 1485, © The National Gallery, London

This painting at the National Gallery tells the tale of a complicated love triangle from an ancient Greek myth. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty is married to Vulcan, the Roman God of fire. But Vulcan cannot satisfy her passions, so Venus has an affair with Mars, the God of War. Venus is the beautiful lady in the white dress, with it’s elegant drapery. This scene illustrates the classic post-coital moment. Mars is fast asleep, exhausted after their lovemaking and she is still awake and wants to chat.

There are four mischievous satyrs cavorting in this painting. A satyr is a mythical creature, with the body of a man and the legs of a goat. One of the satyrs is blowing through a conch shell in an attempt to wake Mars. But he does not stir. The other satyrs are playing with Mar’s armour and one of them is trying on Mar’s helmet. The armour is a reminder that the liaison is adulterous, as it has been made by Vulcan, the cuckolded God of Fire. The satyr in the bottom right corner is playing with a hallucinogenic plant, known as ‘the poor man’s acid.’ The plant called Datura Stramonium, causes madness and the urge to take ones clothes off. The traditional interpretation of this painting is that Venus the God of love has conquered Mars the God of War. But did she have a little bit of help from a Renaissance love drug?



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