A strange, 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 Mermaid Museum in the city of Berlin, Maryland, which opened its doors on March 27th. Days later, on March 29th, International Mermaid Museum began welcoming visitors outside of the coastal city of Aberdeen, Washington state.
How can we explain this coast-to-coast siren call within a week last spring? According to the respective founders of the two museums, Alyssa Maloof and Kim Roberts, they were as surprised as anyone at the simultaneity of their mermaid-focused projects.
“How strange is that?” exclaimed Roberts on a phone call with Hyperallergic. “It must have been in the alignment of things that should be.”
“Mermaids must have come through the airwaves,” agreed Maloof in a separate interview with Hyperallergic.
From the sirens of Greek mythology to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale from 1837 The little mermaid and Disney’s cheerful, animated rendition of the 1989 book, these aquatic creatures continue to fuel the imagination of generations. Variations of the myth of fishtail people, which first appeared in Mesopotamian art from the ancient Babylonian period, are found in almost every oceanic culture, from Europe and America to the Middle East and Asia. Their magic continues, as evidenced by the stories behind these two new American mermaid museums.
Both museums are self-financed, women-led projects that have a personal meaning for their founders. And both happen to be at nine Miles from the sea.
Maloof, visual artist and photographer, had lived between Philadelphia and Berlin, Maryland since 2018, until she finally settled in the small coastal town with her 7-year-old. She rented a studio space and prepared for a new phase of life and career. but then COVID-19 happened, forcing them to forge a new plan.
Around this time, the second floor of a 1906 building built by the Secret Society of the International Order of Odd Fellows, as evidenced by a wall badge, became vacant. Maloof used her savings to buy the 2,200-square-foot space and began researching and collecting items for the museum.
“I was thinking of re-feminizing the space,” she told Hyperallergic on a phone call, explaining that the project was a long-cherished dream driven by her “love for the feminine and water.”
The museum’s collection comes from thrift stores and internet sites like eBay and includes dozens of artifacts related to mermaids, most notably a Fijian mermaid, a mythical half monkey, half fish allegedly caught off the coast of Fiji . Other displays include “mermaid scales” discovered on the nearby Isle of Wigh and a large mermaid fountain in the center of the floor.
The museum also features a timeline of mermaid sightings by sailors and pirates from the first century AD to most recently 2017. It Also offers activities for kids, including a scavenger hunt and the chance to dress up like a mermaid. the The souvenir shop of the Mermaid Museum sells water supplies made by local artists.
“It’s a big art project,” said Maloof, 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 non-profit organization founded with the educational mandate to teach ocean ecology “from coast to sea floor” through mermaid mythology. According to Roberts, the museum is currently developing a curriculum for school children and will soon launch a scholarship program for those interested in working in the shipping industry. The museums board of directors consists exclusively of local female executives who are interested in the conservation of the oceans.
Roberts is an architect, writer, and local entrepreneur who runs multiple businesses in Aberdeen with her husband, Blain, an underwater photographer. The couple own a winery, distillery, and retreat on property on the Washington coast. The cave-like property also includes 15 hectares of show gardens that are open to the public. A pioneering boat captain, Roberts has also written three detective novels set in Maui, where she and her husband used to own the island’s largest dive charter.
Roberts is also an honored member of the West Coast Mermaid Congregation. 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 largest modern mermaid societies in the country. Other groups are active in Seattle, California, Florida, and New York. You are part of a global community of sea people (or “Mers”) of all genders swimming together in mermaid costumes and tails. Each participant has a “mersona” (a portmanteau made up of “mermaid” and “persona” that is only used in the 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 around the world who are hired to perform at parties and special events.
“We might be seen as weird or weird, but that’s because we’re a creative group,” said Roberts.
The idea of starting a mermaid museum came to Roberts when a friend sent her a shipment of special shells, including a single “mermaid crest,” also known as the Venus crest murex. “It clicked,” she said. The museum was scheduled to open in March 2020, but due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the official opening has been postponed to March 29 this year marks the annual International Mermaid Day.
With a collection donated mostly by friends and members of diving and fishing community, the 4,000-square-foot museum features 40 individual installations, each of which contains around a dozen artifacts and is dedicated to a different mermaid. The displays are accompanied by teaching materials on the corresponding marine life. Outstanding is a large-format sculpture of a mermaid on a rock, which was created by a group of visually impaired artists; a 65 year old diving helmet that was salvaged from Pearl Harbor; and a 200 year old wooden mermaid carving believed to have traveled with Napoleon Bonaparte during his conquests of Egypt and Syria. Roberts said she acquired the rare carving at auction in Texas and was the only paid item in the museum’s collection.
Another exhibition in the museum, contributed by the Seattle mermaid group, provides a beginner’s guide with mermaids, including tips on choosing a tail and awareness raising information about imitations that not only infringe the intellectual property of popular independent tail designers, but can also be dangerous in the water. Some of the designer-made mermaid fins are for sale for thousands of dollars.
For Roberts, a 62-year-old cancer survivor, the project means more than her commitment to the ocean. “It’s a legacy for me and my husband,” she called the museum, adding that her diagnosis made her “consciously think about what I want to leave behind.”
“It’s about transformation” she stressed and swore to enjoy her mermaid life to the fullest, both at sea and on land.
Yoakum had repeatedly said that the drawings were “spiritual unfolding,” meaning that belief was guiding its patterns and passages.
The exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum aims to go beyond the Euro-American storytelling.
The exhibition, which can be seen for the next 75 years, shows 250 rarities from the library’s holdings.