Invertebrates In Vitro

Written by Paolo Viscardi, Curator of Zoology, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History

I’m not sure why, but people really seem to love Blaschka models.

Beccaria tricolor [sic] Nr.373 in Blaschka catalogue. Specimen NMINH:1886.810.1 at the National Museum of Ireland.

Beccaria tricolor [sic], Nr.373 in Blaschka catalogue. Specimen NMINH:1886.810.1 at the National Museum of Ireland. Image by Paolo Viscardi, 2018

They are the subject of a surprisingly large number of enquiries at the National Museum of Ireland — Natural History (AKA the Dead Zoo), where I look after the zoology collections.

If you’ve not heard of the Blaschkas, they were a father and son company of lampworkers based in Dresden, who supplied museums and universities around the world with glass models for teaching and display. Between 1864 and 1890 they made mail-order models of invertebrates (alongside glass eyes and medical equipment), then from 1890 until 1936 they worked exclusively for Harvard University on the Ware collection of glass flowers.

glass_flowers_gift-bouquet

Bouquet of Blaschka glass flowers made in 1889, gifted to Elizabeth C. and Mary L. Ware. Now part of the Harvard Glass Flowers exhibit. Image by Bard Cadarn, 2018.

At the Dead Zoo we have a particularly large and comprehensive collection of the invertebrates, with around 590 models acquired in lots between 1874 and 1888. I say ‘around’, because many of the models are made up of multiple parts, with different developmental stages, enlargements and details that are classed as elements of the same model.

Starfish_larvae

Three larval stages in the development of Asteracanthion pallidus [sic] from a model containing ten parts. Nr.659 in Blaschka catalogue. Specimen NMINH:1886.684.1 at the National Museum of Ireland. Image by Paolo Viscardi, 2018

This poses a bit of a documentation nightmare, as parts of a developmental series have become separated, requiring a good knowledge of the biology represented to allow parts to be reunited and their numbers reconciled. This is made more complicated again by historic loans of specimens to other institutions and changes in the acquisition and registration processes over time.

Data management aside, our extensive collection acquired over a number of years offers an exciting opportunity to track the development of the Blaschka’s skill and techniques, especially when compared with even older collections in other institutions. Some key factors in the evolution of the design appear to be when Leopold (the father) took on Rudolf (his son) in the workshop full time in 1876 and then when the two of them joined Isis (not that Isis – the Dresden Natural Sciences Society).

A large part of the importance of membership of Isis was access to scientific publications with good quality colour illustrations. The earliest Blaschka models (1864-1876) were pretty basic – many were based on illustrations from a children’s encyclopedia, while others were based on depictions on anemones by Philip Henry Gosse, which were pretty, but not particularly detailed (they also suffered from terrible taxonomy).

 

The models started off very small and brooch-like, using expensive coloured glass, but a period of experimentation with new methods of colouring the models with wax and paints swiftly followed. Presumably this was to help keep costs down as the size of the models increased. Unfortunately, the inclusion of wax turned out to be a bad idea for the structural integrity of the models, so many with a wax infill have broken over time.

As the Blaschka’s access to scientific illustrations improved, so did the variety and accuracy of their models. The last of the invertebrate range they produced in the late 1880s were details of the structure of sponges based on illustrations from the HMS Challenger expedition. Interestingly, they managed to get these plates before the full report was published, presumably directly from Franz Schulze, the German sponge specialist who wrote the report and was a regular customer of the Blaschkas.

The later models also tended to use glue for fixing and coloured paper behind translucent glass rather than wax infills, making them less prone to exploding when it got too warm. We’ve discovered so much about the construction of the models from damaged examples that now we’re more interested in broken Blaschkas than pristine examples.

I’ve been working with Dr. Emmanuel Reynaud from University College Dublin, and a huge gang of collaborators to delve deeper into the collections at the Dead Zoo and those held in other museums and universities around the world. We’ve been sharing – and requesting information using social media, with the hashtag #BlaschkaMonday and we’re creating a huge database of information about the models.

If you have any Blaschkas and you want to find out more about them, or if you can share your knowledge and perhaps some photos of broken models, then please get in touch and get involved!

Stories from Pressed Plant Books in the Botany Collections

Written by Katherine Slade, Curator: Botany (Lower Plants), Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (AC-NMW)

This article was first published as a blog for AC-NMW, 17 May 2019.

Within Amgueddfa Cymru’s botany collections are books of dried plant specimens created by scientists and enthusiasts. Each specimen has been carefully dried and pressed, before being added to the books, sometimes with handwritten or printed notes alongside. The books are of enormous importance both in terms of modern scientific research into climate change and biodiversity, and as a way to see first hand the history of botanical exploration.

You can now look through a catalogue of the 36 books that contain non-flowering plants, fungi, lichens and seaweeds. You can read about a few of the stories surrounding these books below. For more detailed information about each book, please visit the website.

These books show the changes in how we collect, classify and name plants over two centuries from 1800 to present day. An old volume which probably dates from the 19th century entitled “New Zealand Mosses”, contains more than just mosses. Lichens, algae and even some pressed hydrozoans (tiny marine animals) have been included by the unknown collector who chose to group these superficially similar ‘moss-like’ specimens together. This donation entered the Museum’s collections after its Royal Charter was received and before work had begun on the present Cathays Park building.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – August

Compiled by Glenn Roadley, Curator (Natural Science), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Welcome to the August edition of NatSCA Digital Digest!

What Should I Read?

We’ve got three great NatSCA blogs to read this month. Donna Young, Herbarium Curator at World Museum, Liverpool, writes of her quest to map and document botanical models manufactured by the Brendel Company of Berlin, now found in collections across the world. Be sure to fill in the survey if you have any in your institution.

A blog by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, tells us about the aims and processes behind a new art exhibition at the museum, ‘Evolution as Inspiration’.

Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums, writes about the HLF (or NHLF) funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections, ‘Wild about Portsmouth’.

The Museums Association has published articles covering a range of political issues affecting the sector. Nicky Morgan has become the latest Culture Secretary through the rotating door of cabinet members, and further cuts to local authorities have put museums in Bradford under threat of redundancies and closure. The sector-wide discussions surrounding the decolonisation of collections, human rights and corporate sponsorship continue as Ahdaf Soueif resigns from the British Museum’s board of trustees, citing the museums lack of a ‘clear ethical position’ on such issues.

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Brendel Plant Model Survey

Written by Donna Young, Curator of Herbarium, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool

Inspired by the project led by the Corning Museum of Glass, which looked at holdings of Blaschka models, I am embarking on a project to map and document collections of Brendel botanical models worldwide.

The objective of this project is not only to provide a useful resource to be used in the curation of anatomical models, but to document their past and present use – promoting and bringing awareness of these collections to new audiences.

Brendel model Papaver rhoeas
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

Anatomical Models

The nineteenth century was the golden age of scientific discovery, and as the century progressed, the teaching of science in schools, academies and museums evolved to reach a new mass public audience. Science was no longer the exclusive preserve of an elite few.

Changing teaching techniques promoted this transformation and pedagogical inquiry was seen as a constructive and involved way of learning. The written and spoken word was supported by the use of visually instructive wall charts and classroom demonstrations. The introduction of interactive teaching models encouraged audiences to understand nature using new and original perspectives.

Botanical models were used to illustrate and demonstrate plant anatomy. Unlike living material, their use was not restricted by seasonal availability and they were ideal for demonstrating small or ephemeral details which are difficult to preserve.

In 1827 Louis Auzoux established his workshop in France, manufacturing human and veterinary anatomical models from papier-mâché. The company also produced botanical models, which were widely distributed to universities and schools in France, particularly to support the expansion in teaching agricultural science.

Brendel model Centaurea cyanus ‘dissected’
© National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

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The Dead and the Living: Natural History’s Two Key Pillars in New Art Exhibition

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and curator of ‘Evolution as Inspiration’

Over the past year, I’ve been working with one of the world’s leading naturalists, Jonathan Kingdon, to produce an exhibition of his artworks, entitled Evolution as Inspiration. Translating his science through his art, Kingdon has sought to explore and explain the how’s of why’s of animal appearances.

Beaks as Flags (detail), 2010. Jonathan Kingdon

Although it is an art exhibition of ceramics, sculpture, paintings and drawings, in several senses a natural history museum like ours is the perfect place for this show. Evolution as Inspiration is arranged in two parts. One focusses on the drawings Kingdon made whilst dissecting animal carcasses as he sought to document and understand the adaptations beneath the skin; the other explores his scientific analysis of the evolution of animal signalling and colouration, resulting from decades of observing the behaviours of wild animals.

These two elements of Kingdon’s work reflect two central pillars of natural history: what we can learn from dead specimens is very different to what we can understand by watching live animals in the field. These dual strands of zoological research are also embodied by the history of our collections, and by the people who work and study here in the Museum, in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology in which we are embedded, and in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) with whom we worked with to co-curate this exhibition.

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Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering and Uncovering a Little Known Natural History Collection

Written by Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums

Wild about Portsmouth is a two-year Heritage Lottery Funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections.  In addition to enabling visitors to get more hands on with the collections through events and activities, work is being carried out to make them more accessible for museum staff and researchers.

Challenges

The collections are held at three sites across the city and housed in environmentally controlled stores with many specimens held in archival quality boxes. However, the absence of a natural history curator for over 10 years has led to a series of challenges with accessing them:

Little Knowledge of Collections

Apart from the sizeable and substantial HLF Guermonprez Collection transferred from Bognor Regis Museum in the 1970s, very little was known about the collectors associated with the remainder of the natural history collections. In-depth knowledge of the HLF Guermonprez Collection has also been lost over time, although it is occasionally cited in publications by Sussex naturalists.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – July

Compiled by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives.

Welcome to the July edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.

Where Should I Go?

Dippy is in Newcastle over the summer, so if you haven’t seen this iconic cast, pop on over!

A nice exhibition is on at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, Evolution as Inspiration. A mixture of artworks and natural history specimens look at how animals have evolved visual cues.

What Should I Read?

There’s a new book coming out on Britain’s lost ice age giants. The Missing Lynx: The Past and Future of Britain’s lost mammals is out on 11th July. Written by the co-creator of Twilight Beasts, this book explores the history of some of our amazing large mammals that once roamed Britain. Rewilding, ancient DNA, cave fossils and more – it’s a fabulous book (I’ve had a sneak peak!). And well worth one for the reading list!

Six North Atlantic Right Whales have been found dead in the last 3 months. With just 400 individuals left in the world, this species is highly threatened. In museums we are in a unique position to help highlight species at risk, so if you have any North Atlantic Right Whale specimens on display, lets update our labels! Read about it here.

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