Mermaids: Women at Sea

National Maritime Museum Cornwall

14 Sep 2015 – 13 Mar 2016

Free with National Art Pass, standard entry £12

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Uncovering the hidden stories of women at sea

The association between women and the sea has been unfavourably painted in the past, through superstitious tales of those on board inviting bad luck and the ancient image of a siren’s deadly seduction. This exhibition looks beyond traditional maritime history to uncover the compelling stories of remarkable female sailors. Among the more acclaimed is Ellen MacArthur, who broke records when she circumnavigated the globe single-handed in 2005. Lesser-known figures include Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford, a keen canoeist, sailor and aviator; and Mary Lang, who crewed one of the last merchant sailing ships to complete the gruelling voyage from South Australia to Cornwall in the 1930s.

However this show is not completely devoid of fable, and includes a three-dimensional scan of the mediaeval seat known as the ‘mermaid chair’ found in St Senara’s church (which in itself is named after a virtuous Breton princess accused of adultery and thrown into the sea in a barrel). Its half-human, half-fish carving is commonly considered the earliest British depiction of the mythical sea creature and is said to represent the dual nature of Christ. According to local legend it was also used by the Mermaid of Zennor, who journeyed from the shore to attend services after becoming mesmerised by a local parishioner’s singing.

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