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A curious, almost mystical coincidence occurred earlier this year when two separate mermaid-themed museums debuted almost simultaneously on opposite ends of the United States. First, it was the Mermaid Museum in the town of Berlin, Maryland, which opened its doors on March 27. Days later, on March 29, the International Mermaid Museum started welcoming visitors outside the coastal town of Aberdeen in Washington state.
So, how can we explain this coast-to-coast siren call in the span of one week last spring? According to the respective founders of the two museums, Alyssa Maloof and Kim Roberts, they were just as surprised as anyone at the concomitance of their mermaid-centric projects.
“How weird is that?” Roberts exclaimed in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “It must’ve been in the alignment of things that were supposed to be.”
“Mermaids must’ve been coming through the ether,” Maloof agreed in a separate interview with Hyperallergic.
From the sirens of Greek mythology to Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale The Little Mermaid and Disney’s cheerier, animated interpretation of the book in 1989, these aquatic creatures continue to capture the imagination of generations. Variations of the myth of fish-tailed people, first appearing in Mesopotamian art from the Old Babylonian Period, exist in nearly every oceanic culture, from Europe and the Americas to the Near East and Asia. Their magic endures, as evidenced by the stories behind these two new American mermaid museums.
Both museums are self-funded, women-led projects that hold personal importance to their founders. And both happen to be located about nine miles from the ocean.
Maloof, a visual artist and photographer, lived between Philadelphia and Berlin, Maryland, since 2018, until she eventually permanently settled in the small seaside town with her 7-year-old. She rented a studio space and prepared for a new chapter of her life and career, but then COVID-19 happened, forcing her to conjure up a new plan.
It’s around then that the second floor of a 1906 building — built by the secret society of the International Order of Odd Fellows, as a wall insignia testifies — became available. Maloof used her savings to purchase the 2,200-square-foot space and started conducting research and collecting items for the museum.
“I thought of it as re-feminizing the space,” she told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation, explaining that the project was a long-held dream driven by her “love of the feminine and the water.”
Accrued from thrift shops and internet sites like eBay, the museum’s collection spans dozens of mermaid-related artifacts, most prominently a Fiji Mermaid, a mythical half monkey-half fish said to have been caught off the coast of Fiji. Other displays include “mermaid scales” discovered on the nearby Isle of Wigh and a large mermaid fountain at the center of the floor.
The museum also features a timeline of mermaid sightings by sailors and pirates from the first century CE to as recently as 2017. It also offers activities for children, including a scavenger hunt and an opportunity to dress up like a mermaid. The Mermaid Museum’s gift shop sells aquatic paraphernalia crafted by local artists.
“It’s one big art project,” Maloof said, describing the museum as a “collage” of curiosities.
Thousands of miles away, on the other side of the country, the International Mermaid Museum is a nonprofit created with an educational mission to teach ocean ecology “from seashore to seafloor” through mermaid mythology. According to Roberts, the museum is currently developing a curriculum for school children and will soon launch a scholarship program for individuals who wish to work in the marine industry. The museum’s board of directors is comprised entirely of local women leaders with an interest in ocean preservation.
Roberts is an architect, author, and local entrepreneur who runs several businesses in Aberdeen with her husband Blain, an underwater photographer. The couple owns a winery, distillery, and a retreat on a property by the Washington coast. The cavernous property also includes 15 acres of display gardens that are open to the public. Roberts, a pioneering boat captain, has also authored three mystery novels set on Maui, where she and her husband formerly owned the island’s largest scuba charter.
Roberts is also a venerated member of the West Coast mermaid community. In July, she received the 2021 Mermazing Citizen Award from the Portlandia Mermaid Parade and Festival.
“I’ve always felt like a mermaid,” she said.
Portland, Oregon, is home to one of the biggest modern-day mermaid societies in the country. Other groups are active in Seattle, California, Florida, and New York. They are part of a global community of merpeople (or “mers”) of all genders who commune to swim together in mermaid costumes and tails. Each participant goes by a “Mersona” (a portmanteau of “mermaid” and “persona,” used only in water). They have a vibrant online community and local pods and meetup groups that organize conventions, festivals, and competitions. There are also thousands of professional mermaids worldwide who are hired to perform at parties and special events.
“We might be considered weird, or oddballs, but that’s because we’re a creative group,” Roberts said.
The idea of creating a mermaid museum occurred to Roberts when a friend sent her a shipment of special seashells, among them a single “mermaid comb,” also known as the Venus Comb murex. “That’s when it’s all clicked,” she said. The museum was set to open in March of 2020, but because of the COVID-19 lockdown, the official opening was postponed to March 29 this year, which marks the annual International Mermaid Day.
With a collection donated mainly by friends and members of the diving and fishing community, the 4,000-square-foot museum features 40 individual installations, each containing about a dozen artifacts and dedicated to a different mermaid. Educational materials about corresponding sea creatures accompany the displays. Standouts include a large-scale sculpture of a mermaid on a rock made by a group of visually impaired artists; a 65-year-old dive helmet that was recovered from Pearl Harbor; and a 200-year-old wooden mermaid carving that is said to have traveled with Napoleon Bonaparte during his conquests of Egypt and Syria. Roberts said she acquired the rare carving in an auction in Texas and that it is the only paid-for item in the museum’s collection.
Another display at the museum, contributed by the Seattle Mermaids Group, offers a guide for novice mermaids, including tips on how to choose a tail and awareness-raising information on knock-offs that not only violate the intellectual property of popular, independent tail designers but also can be dangerous in water. Some of the designer-made mermaid tails sell for thousands of dollars.
For Roberts, a 62-year-old cancer survivor, the project represents more than her dedication to the ocean. “It’s a legacy for me and my husband,” she called the museum, adding that her diagnosis made her “think consciously about what I want to leave behind.”
“It’s all about transformation,” she emphasized, vowing to continue living her mermaid life to the full in both sea and land.
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“Everybody in Mesopotamia, as far as I understand it, believed in ghosts,” said Irving Finkel, a curator of the British Museum’s Middle Eastern department.