Mermaids: Women at Sea, Maritime Museum uncovers the hidden histories of seafaring heroines

By Culture24 Reporter | 02 September 2015

Pictures going on display show adventurer Mary Lang and killer whale attack family who survived 38 days at sea on a bag of onions

A photo of female sailor Mary Lang at sea as part of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall's Mermaids exhibition
Mary Lang as figurehead© Anne Spencer
During the 1930s, Mary Lang joined a crew on the last of the merchant sailing ships - known as windjammers - to journey from South Australia to Cornwall in the 1930s.

Her achievements are about to be recounted in an exhibition of female heroics at sea, standing alongside the likes of Dame Ellen MacArthur, who blazed a trail for women in competitive sailing and swept to a place in sporting history as the fastest woman ever to circumnavigate the globe in 2005.

A photo of female sailor Mary Lang at sea as part of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall's Mermaids exhibition
A lesson at the helm© Anne Spencer
The National Maritime Museum Cornwall will also roll out a "very special" boat once owned by Dame Mary Russell, a keen canoist and the Duchess of Bedford who was better known as the Flying Duchess. The boat, called Endsleigh after her "favourite country estate" on the River Tamar, is part of the museum's National Small Boat Collection.

Senior Curator Tehmina Goskar says the display is a “key moment” for the museum, which wants to publicly address the hidden histories of women sailors.

A photo of female sailor Mary Lang at sea as part of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall's Mermaids exhibition
Lang coiling rope© Anne Spencer
“It’s not because they are women, but because their stories are just as fascinating and stimulating as those of men and therefore worthy of preserving and presenting to our visitors,” she says.

“There have always been superstitions about women and the sea, from the myths of mermaids luring unsuspecting men to a watery death to the ill fortune a woman aboard a ship was meant to have brought to a voyage and its male crew.

A grey scale photo of a family at sea in 1972 as part of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall's Mermaids exhibition
The Ednamair was a 9ft dinghy which, in 1972, saved the Robertson family after their yacht was sunk by killer whales© Robertsons
“One of Cornwall’s most famous legends is the Mermaid of Zennor. Visitors to our exhibition will be able to see and touch a 3D print of the famous mermaid carving in St Senara Church in Zennor – this is the first time the museum has used this technology to present an exhibit to the public.

"We hope this replica of the 15th-century mermaid carving will capture the imagination. Guests will also enjoy the legend being recited as part of a special film commissioned from a new local Cornish Community Interest Company, Storylines.”

A photo of a family at sea in 1972 as part of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall's Mermaids exhibition
With just a bag of onions, all six members of the family survived by living off the sea for 38 days before being rescued© Robertsons
The Penzance-based Hypatia Trust, a charity which exists to promote the study of women, is supporting Mermaids. “I hope that all visitors to this exhibition will leave knowing that the sea belongs to women as well as men,” says Goskar. “And so does its history.”

A photo of a brown wood carving of a mermaid as part of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall's Mermaids exhibition
A Zennor carving© NMMC
  • Mermaids: Women at Sea runs from September 14 2015 – February 21 2016. A lecture, Enterprising Women, takes place on September 23 at 6.30pm. Tickets cost £7, telephone 01326 214546 to book.

Three museums to explore maritime history in

Lleyn Historical and Maritime Museum, Nefyn
Located at St Mary's Church, Nefyn, where the tower supports a sailing ship weathervane, these collections include fine art and social history.

Holyhead Maritime Museum, Anglesey
Step back in time at the oldest lifeboat station in Wales, from around 1858, which houses a wonderful collection of exhibits on the fascinating maritime history of Holyhead.

Ramsgate Maritime Museum
Set in the heart of the country's only Royal Harbour, this museum's building is an exhibit in its own right - the product of some of the most eminent civil engineers and architects of the early 19th century.
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