THE Victorians were no strangers to stuffed animals.

But perhaps none can be as bizarre as this merman, collected by museum founder Henry Willett.

A token of tourism in the Malay states of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, they were sold to well-to-do Victorians on their travels.

Folklore claims they were made from a monkey’s head and a fish body with the intention of passing them off as the real thing.

Lee Ismail, curator of natural science at Royal Pavilion and Museums, said: "In the Victorian period the market would have been for rich colonials who went out there to shoot animals or be missionaries. So they would have been very different to what we consider a tourist today."

Mr Ismail said this merman was collected by Willett (who died in 1905) as a curiosity possibly to be shown in Brighton Museum.

Willett was a rich philanthropist who helped set up the museum and liked collecting unusual items, including stuffed creatures.

Mr Ismail said: "Taxidermy really took off in the Victorian period. This was before any technology so the only way for people to see animals up close was to kill them and stuff them as professionally as possible."

It is one of only three mermen on display in the country.

Mr Ismail said the Brighton one could be the head of something but is probably a carving containing fish teeth.

He added: "They were passed off as the real thing in Europe but nobody fell for it."

Another Victorian curiosity reminiscent of the freakshow era is a foetus skeleton posed as if it was standing upright as a human.

Mr Ismail said: "It would be abhorrent today. There’s no information as to how it was collected but we know prisoners who had been executed were then operated on. This one looks at least eight months into the pregnancy."

A national human remains policy from the 1990s means the foetus skeleton will never go on display.

The merman, however, is just one example of the kind of piece curators at Royal Pavilion and Museums are hoping to bring closer to schoolchildren, community groups and individuals through its Museum Lab.

As part of a collection built up from the era of the Prince Regent, some will have been confined behind glass display cases while others may never have been seen before.

The Museum Lab takes over a large Victorian reference library in Brighton Museum, retaining its listed fittings to turn a once-specific space into a multi-functional hands-on gallery.

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