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.

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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!

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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Highlights of Day Two – SPNHC2014

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The conference had a packed schedule. From the very beginning there were times when I had to choose between two talks I really wanted to see and would have to sit in on one physically while stalking twitter comments from the other. During Tuesday’s Conference committee meeting, someone raised the idea of live streaming the talks via Adobe Connect or similar for future events. The Emergent Professionals group had already done that in the previous session with some success. The main concern seemed to be that paying delegates would be put out by non-attending people getting more of the perks of those attending. I can’t speak for everybody but, as a paying delegate, I would have appreciated the ability to attend more than one talk at once.

Sometimes I picked the wrong talk. I won’t highlight which ones but I would like to give some feedback for those talking at these events in the future. All of these are based on actual events but nobody was alone in making these mistakes. Also I would like to go on record as saying that I am not a great public orator and am saying this purely from an audience perspective. Getting up there and doing it in the first place is awesome.

Advice for Future Speakers

  • If the speaker before you was really good, don’t let that intimidate you. Your material is different in content, therefore it has new and exciting value.
  • The sun is going to explode in a few billion years. If you embarrass yourself it’s not the end of the world.
  • You’re there to engage people but don’t falter if your presentation is right before the tea break and your audience seem more engaged by that.
  • A constant monotone for 20-30 minutes is a killer even if the subject matter is chocolate dinosaur sex (the three most exciting research areas for the average person according to a survey).
  • Don’t be thrown by sleeping audience members. There’s a lot of double-ended candle burning at these things and it’s really hot + airless in those rooms.
  • Make sure the audience can see your lips. We had audibly-impaired delegates who miss out if they can’t lip-read. Check for mouth-level obstacles, such as laptops and microphone stands.

Highlights

Gregory J. Watkins-Colwell’s talk on time lapse photography was very interesting. Time lapse is a great way to demonstrate a lot of information in a much-reduced time frame. He showed us students skeletonising a grey wolf over an eight hour period. He was able to point out in under two minutes all the mistakes the students had made in that time: leaving gloves off; talking to each other for at least three hours; and so on. He then discussed logistical problems while filming dermestid beetles – they really don’t like the light. The applications of time lapse extend well beyond the classroom and, as it occurred to me later in the week, could be used as a means of educating decision makers about collections care. Example: at one particular museum, who shall remain nameless unless they ask not to be, the geology stores have a heat and humidity problem. There is no air conditioning and the curators have told the relevant people, whose reply has been along the lines of: “they’re rocks, they’ll be fine”. Of course that’s not the case but how to convey that to them? Time lapse photography could be key – train your camera on one of the specimens and take a snapshot once daily. Hopefully a decision would be made sooner but, at 20 frames / second, you could replay 3.3 years worth of consequences per minute.

Nicola Crompton and Bethany Palumbo from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History have just finished the monumental task of cleaning their whales. This was made possible by PRISM grant funding. It’s little wonder they were looking a little worse for wear: these five cetaceans are at least 154 years old! A century and a half of UV light exposure and fluctuating temperature had taken their toll and the whales were leaking natural oils (careful what you stand under, folks). As they removed the corrosive dust, dirt, and secretions they documented the entire process here.

Anna Monfils from Central Michigan University presented the findings of her research into the use of natural history collections for undergraduate training and its effect on their overall education. I won’t say too much about this just yet as these results are as yet unpublished but let’s just say it’s looking really good.

Annette Townsend shared with us her experiences of making teaching specimen replicas of some of the Neolithic tools from Salisbury. Pictured in this post is her mace head in its various incarnations. She started by 3D scanning the original but the printed copy (above) didn’t feel right, so she used this as the basis for making a mould and then recreated it using Jesmonite (below). Comparing it to the original it’s very impressive.

Nigel Monaghan gave us the low-down on the Irish fossil hunting frenzy that resulted in scanning numerous caves across the Republic for their biodiversity. He was very engaging and exactly what we needed at such a late stage in the day. If you ever get a chance to visit his Megaloceros specimens, they’re truly impressive.
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Pub Quiz

“Work hard and play hard” seems to be the motto of the museum sector and they did not disappoint at the pub quiz: we planned a lynching in case of no food; we groped whale teeth; conducted some fairly serious team espionage and generally had way more fun than one perhaps should. Thanks to all the organisers and participants – it was great!

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