Art of glass

Spotlight Specimens by Mark Carnall

From the comfort of our own homes, or even on a mobile device, we are accustomed to watching video footage from the most remote environments on Earth, and beyond. It is easy to take for granted this kind of visual access but we don’t have to go too far back in time to reach a point when the uninhabitable parts of the world remained much more mysterious. Then, the only windows into the nature of exotic locations were through drawings, paintings or collected specimens.

In museums, illustrations of nature were – and are – used in teaching to show what certain animals or environments look like. Along with our biological specimens, the Museum’s collections contain representations of animals whose natural appearance is not preserved after death, including a set of beautiful glassworks of British sea anemones.

These delicate models were created by the Blaschkas, a family which specialised in glasswork and ran a business spanning 300 years and nine generations. But it was only from the late 19th century that Leopold Blaschka, later to be joined by his son Rudolf Blaschka, turned his skills to making models of microscopic organisms and soft-bodied invertebrates for museums and universities.

Blaschka anemones still
The only Blaschka models at the Museum today form a series of British anemones, many of which are recognisable as the species and even individual animals illustrated in British Sea-Anemones and Corals published in 1860 by Philip Henry Gosse

Inspired by zoological specimens, scientific papers, and observation of living animals, as well as artworks showing colours and structures that were difficult to preserve or too small to show, the Blaschkas created thousands of glass models before they accepted a contract in 1886 to work exclusively at Harvard University on the Ware Collection of plant models.

Plate from Philip Henry Gosse, 1860. British Sea-Anemones showing many of the species in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History series. Public domain image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

It is somewhat surprising that these incredibly fragile specimens made their way to museums and universities across the globe back in the 19th century and even more surprising that any have survived 150 years later.

Anemones tend to lose their shape and colour when preserved in fluid
Anemones tend to lose their shape and colour when preserved in fluid

Earlier this year the Corning Museum of Glass published an interactive map of marine invertebrate models showing the known locations of collections, or records of collections, of Blaschka glass models.

The models at the Museum, acquired in 1867, are thought to be some of the oldest surviving Blaschka glass models. Even though they are over 150 years old, and in some cases slightly inaccurate representations of species, they still show the vibrant colours and alien shapes of British anemones in a way that can’t be seen outside their living environments.

Dodo Roadshow: National Museum Cardiff

To mark our selection as a Finalist in the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015 we’re embarking on a unique and ambitious tour of the country – the Dodo Roadshow.

Beginning at Land’s End on 8 June and concluding in John O’Groats one week later, the famous Oxford Dodo will visit more than 20 museums and galleries along the way. At each stop the Dodo will ‘interview’ one of the venue’s star objects.

National Museum Cardiff: Blaschka glass models

Dodo and BlaschkaSo, tell me about yourself – who are you and where do you come from?
I’m a Blaschka glass model of a marine animal called Physophora hydrostatica – a jellyfish-like animal known as a siphonophore. I was originally made in the 1880’s by the Blaschkas for the Science Museum in London who donated me to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales in 1927.

What is it that makes you so special?
I am made of glass! The Blaschkas were very skilled glass workers and had a great interest in natural history. Animals like me are difficult to preserve with lifelike shapes and colours. The Blaschkas came up with the idea of making models of such animals in glass so they could show people how we looked in real life. Today we are still greatly admire by artists and scientists alike for the special skills used to make us.

Who looks after you in this place?
The natural science conservators look after me and all the other glass models. Lots of people are fascinated by us so we are regularly going on journeys to be shown in other museums and galleries. This requires lots of careful handling by the conservators!

Do you remember life before the museum?
After being made I was carefully shipped all the way to Britain where I spent many years on display at the Science Museum before moving onwards to Wales.

What does the future hold for you?
At the moment I’m back in store after touring around for a couple of years with lots of other wonderful objects in an art exhibition called ‘Curiosity’. The conservators are currently starting to do a condition check on me and the other models to ensure we remain in good shape, and can continue to inspire people in the future!

However, whilst I may not currently be on display the museum does have a permanent display of some of the other Blaschka models in the natural history galleries, including my wonderful cousin the Portuguese man’o’war. Please visit!

Stickers small - Dodo Roadshow_crop