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.

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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!

Hands-On Time with the Bird Collections at Glasgow

Written by Maggie Reilly, Curator of Zoology at The Hunterian Museum (Zoology), University of Glasgow.

“Huzzah!” (or something similar) my colleague Adam and I cried as we put the last of our bird skin collection in its new home – the rather swanky Bruynzeel (other brands are available) drawers that are part of the new storage arrangements for the Hunterian at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. We don’t have a huge bird collection here at the Hunterian – well, not by some people’s standards, but we do have some pretty special stuff. Cataloguing is not complete (is it ever?), but to date here are the stats: Bird skins 3,587; Bird mounts ca. 450; National Nest Reference Collection ca. 2000; Eggs ca. 1000; Bones ca. 100?; Wet-preserved>30. I am going to focus on the skin collection here.

New storage at the Kelvin Hall for mammal, bird skin and mount collections. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

Most of the skins were moved along with the rest of the Hunterian’s study collections, over the last two years to our new home the Hunterian Collections Study and Access Centre at the Kelvin Hall. The latter, adjacent to University, is an iconic building in Glasgow which has served many purposes in its 100 year history. It is now a partnership between the University of Glasgow, Glasgow Life and National Libraries of Scotland, to provide access to museum and library collections, and sports facilities.

Organising and moving the collections has been a monumental task and is still underway for other parts of the collection.  Thankfully it has mandated much hands-on time with the collections, previously a rare treat.

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Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering Portsmouth’s Natural History Collection

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

In March 2018 Portsmouth City Council was awarded a £79,700 grant to deliver a ‘Wild about Portsmouth project in order to raise the profile of the city’s Natural History collection. In addition to appointing a curator and an assistant, the project enables the development of natural history advocates and a team of volunteers to work on and promote the collection. The project also aims to engage with people in a variety of ways, from family activities to specialist workshops, with the view of participants helping to inform priorities for collection development and new displays.

As a curator with over 20 years’ experience in Hampshire, I have always been aware of the collection but had very little knowledge of it. The last Natural History Curator was 10 years ago and, apart from the occasional request, little had been done to develop the collection. An initial overview showed that the collection was (mainly) in good condition, packed into archival and museum quality boxes awaiting rediscovery.

One of the first tasks was to get an idea of the scope of the collections and their associated collectors. Another task was to recruit volunteers to assist with rearranging the collections to get them into taxonomic order and to catalogue them or update the Modes database with provenance data. To date 10 volunteers have been recruited and are currently working on the geology, shell and botany collections. Once the entomology collections have rehoused over the next few months (the cabinets are currently stored side-on making access to them rather difficult), volunteers will be recruited to re-stage, re-organise and catalogue them.

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Impressions of My First NatSCA Conference

Last April I had the opportunity to attend the NatSCA conference at Leeds City Museum. I have been a member of NatSCA since I came to live in the UK three years ago and finally this year, thanks to one of the NatSCA bursaries, I was able to attend the conference. With more than 70 participants from all over the UK and beyond each day, more than 20 talks, interesting stands showing projects and new technology, good coffee and lunch in a uniquely-shaped hall, the event was very successful.

Over the two-day conference, I met colleagues from work, I recognised familiar faces from previous events and the most exciting part was to meet new people and to hear about the amazing projects and experiences from different experts in the museum environment. We also heard about the benefit of working with communities, schoolchildren, teachers, volunteers, undergraduate students, artists and many other groups.

After thinking carefully about what really impressed me (a difficult job with so many good talks), I would like to highlight the following topics.

Facing Challenges and Thinking Up New Strategies to Engage

The first two talks about the exhibition Dinosaurs of China in Nottingham really impressed me. The project involved extraordinary team work in organising the loans, the trips, the installation of the tallest dinosaur skeleton ever displayed in the UK, and the running of a very successful event with large numbers of visitors. The second talk showed brilliantly the role of theatre to enhance the visitor’s experience and engage the public while also showing a good marketing strategy. Moreover, selecting the artist with the required performance skills was very demanding work.

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Rocks of Death and Fizzing Fossil Fish

In what must surely be one of the most excitingly themed workshops known to scientists, Monica Price (formerly of Oxford University Museum of Natural History) and Jana Horak (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) recently ran a day-long workshop called Hazards in Geological Collections. We’re not talking hazards like booklice eating your specimen labels, we’re talking The Big Guns. It was Christmas come early for the attendees who had gathered from the ‘four corners’ of the British Isles to learn what villainstreasures might be lurking in their collections.

Hazards in geological collections take many forms. © Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Each of the three tables of eager minds was presented with a box of unlabelled specimens from which to try and list the potential hazards. After a very thorough health and safety briefing, we all leaned cautiously in towards the box. Decked out in nitrile gloves and face masks, we were the picture of professionalism. The excitement of the workshop was definitely heightened by the real, LIVE specimens in front of us. Had any of us had been stupid enough to open up and breathe in the contents of an asbestos tube, or rub ourselves all over with a toxic mineral, we could have done ourselves some serious harm. But as it was, the 20 or so geologists in the room were suitably well-behaved.

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Special Notice- Offer of Materials

Professor Hugh Torrens at Keele University is looking to rehouse a large quantity of material that may be of interest to many of our readers. If you would like further information on, or to re-home anything on the following list, please contact Prof Torrens directly on email, h.s.torrens@keele.ac.uk, or by phone 01782 733754.

1) Lots of spare offprints (my own, those by Ron Cleevely, or John Fuller, or by others like Martin Rudwick or John Thackray) and will be happy to try and find those by particular authors, or any other particular items for enquirers.

2) There are many large files on particular people. I may still have separate files on many of the more significant geologists or naturalists of the past, including the circa 50 for whom I wrote entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

3) Other files are on topics, particularly those related to geology and its practice, including many on the myriad failed attempts to find coal where it was never going to be found all over Britain. These strike me as a major research area which has never attracted attention. I will be happy to try and answer particular enquiries.

4) There is an enormous collection of printed obituary notices, both British and foreign

5) A large collection of books, pamphlets and notes on museums and on museology, with many lists of type and figured fossils etc.

6) Collection, in about 15 large A4 spring back files, of random obituary notices and printed scraps, on former geologists/naturalists, many of some obscurity.

Please note, the material needs to be moved asap, and at the latest by the end of June.

Brexit & the Customs Union: The practical impact on museums

With less than one year to go before Britain officially leaves the European Union, it’s high time we got to grips with what Brexit means for those of us working with museum collections. The most talked-about issues have tended to be the impact on visitor numbers, hits to funding and the loss of skilled and knowledgeable staff, as museum professionals reconsider staying in a more divided (and some might even say openly xenophobic) Britain.

brexit

Brexit – Public domain image courtesy of freestocks.org, 2016

However, there are also practical issues that need to be considered right now, as the UK government wrangles over the deal for borders and trade relationships that will impact on how museums undertake their day-to-day business. In particular there are significant issues relating to how membership of the Customs Union plays out.

This became a reality for me when I  was assessing the status of research loans to the UK from the National Museum of Ireland, where I am the Curator of Zoology & Entomology. I have to deal with quite a lot of research loans of type specimens to taxonomists and getting material across borders can be quite nerve-wracking thanks to the attitude of the occasional overzealous border official – who can forget the horrific incident last year in which 105 botanical specimens (including six types) were incinerated by Australian border control?

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