Wax models of magnified mites mounted on a black board

Of parasites, dinosaurs, and other model animals

Elaine Charwat has been on a journey into the attic storerooms behind the scenes of the Museum to discover 19th-century wax models of parasites. A strange occupation you might think, but it’s all part of her doctoral research programme with the Arts and Humanities Research Council to learn about the use of models and replicas in science, past and present. In the podcast above Elaine meets Mark Carnall, Zoology Collections Manager at the OUMNH, who talks about the differences between models and the thousands of specimens he looks after, and Dr Péter Molnár, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Toronto, who offers important insights into current research using mathematical models.

Different types of models and replicas are everywhere in the Museum, and they tell us much about the organisms they represent or reconstruct, but even more about processes in research and science. Made to communicate and produce data, these larger-than-life objects are as fascinating as their subjects…

Top image: Wax models of Sarcoptes scabiei (itch mite) produced by Rudolf Weisker, Leipzig (Germany), probably late 1870s or early 1880s. These models are listed as having been on public display at the Museum in 1911, labelled: “Sarcoptes scabiei: enlarged wax models, male & female + mouth parts”.

Tests of time: Foraminifera and Radiolarians in science, art and 3D

Doctoral researcher Elaine Charwat is exploring the value and meaning of models and casts in the Museum’s collections as part of her PhD. She has recently been studying some fabulous models that help to visualise and understand some of the very, very smallest of specimens…

By Elaine Charwat

The first time I encountered a Radiolarian was in a book – Ernst Haeckel’s (1834-1919) weird and wonderful Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature, 1899-1904). It took comparative morphology – comparing the shapes of organisms – to new giddy heights, scientifically, philosophically and artistically. I felt that giddiness when looking at page after page crammed with crustaceans, orchids, hummingbirds, moths and even bat faces, all exquisitely arranged to celebrate their symmetries, the evolution and kinship of their shapes and forms. It also made visible organisms that are normally all but invisible.

Illustration of Cyrtoidea (table 31) from Kunsterformen der Natur (1899 – 1904) by Ernst Haeckel. By permission of the Linnean Society of London.

Foraminifera and Radiolarians are microscopic sea-dwelling organisms. Species may be found as fossils dating from Cambrian times, ca. 500 million years ago, right up to living specimens today.

To Haeckel, they were living proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and for his own belief that morphology was the key to understand the actual processes of evolution, catching it in the act. However, these organisms had two big disadvantages – their unwieldy taxonomy, or the way they are classified, and their minute size: they were difficult to examine and display.

Illustrations of Radiolarians, (table 28). from Die Radiolarien (1862) by Ernst Haeckel. By permission of the Linnean Society of London.

Through his illustrations, Haeckel widely popularized them – triggering a Victorian craze for microscopes and microorganisms, as well as influencing art nouveau art and architecture. But there were limits to what an illustration could communicate. Models stepped in, representing these organisms in ways illustrations could not.

Detail from Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1899 – 1904)

One defining feature of Radiolarians and Foraminifera is their shells – called “tests”. Variations in shapes of the tests not only indicate that they are different species, but also, excitingly, provide clues about space and time. The tests of Neogloboquadrina pachyderma, for instance, record ocean temperature over geological timescales – their shells coil to the left when water temperatures are relatively cold, and to the right when it is warmer. The potential for research into climate change is obvious. Foraminifera are also important “signature fossils”, helping geologists to determine geological strata.

You really need to see them in glorious 3D to appreciate these tests across geological time, to understand their complex, beautiful shapes. And I felt a similar twang of excitement to my first encounter with them through Haeckel when discovering these extraordinary models here in the Museum as part of my PhD research.

Václav Frič (1839-1916) was a natural history dealer based in Prague. He developed a series of 100 plaster of Paris models of Foraminifera (1861), as well as the stunning papier-maché models of Radiolaria (listed in his catalogue of 1878). He worked closely with Ernst Haeckel.

A selection of Frič’s models in the Museum’s stores

The Frič models oscillate between visible and invisible, illustration and model, art and science, philosophy and theory. They bear witness to a key period in the history of science when they were used to give tangible shape and proof to Charles Darwin’s poignant phrase:  “[…] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Through the models we can “grasp” microorganisms that have been around for over 500 million years; organisms that truly have stood the tests of time.

A tale of two seahorses

Real or fake? Do replicas have a value of their own? Elaine Charwat is exploring this in her PhD, using the Museum’s large collection of natural history models and casts to research their role in science. Here she tells the story of the fascinating fish that caught her imagination…

By Elaine Charwat

It all started with a seahorse. Last year, I walked into a little seaside shop, and I spotted a seahorse. I instantly flipped back to the happy day I bought my first dried seahorse as a child, the beginning of a life-long passion for the natural world. The man behind the counter smiled: “It’s a fake.” Really? “3D printed.” It looked absolutely perfect. Tracing its lines with my fingers, I said, “It’s a model”.

Ever since I became interested in models and replications, I have encountered this perception of them as “fakes”. Quite recently, I heard the curator of a natural history museum call the cast of a dinosaur skeleton a “fake”. Models in natural history – and in this I include casts and reproductions – are what the Germans call “Wissensdinge”, objects that contain, distribute and generate knowledge. In this aspect, the real specimen and the model meet. Models are made from a vast array of materials with often astonishing skill and technologies. They represent what we know about a particular organism at a certain point in time. They have a history, a context.

Long live the replica! Most of our most beloved dinosaur skeletons in museums are partly or fully casts of bones, like Stan’s here at the Museum. Almost complete skeletons like Stan’s are extremely rare, and casts allow us to share and preserve them. Accompanying models give the bones “flesh and blood” – and provide a snapshot of what was known about the dinosaur when the model was made.

But they are also ambassadors, and this is something I realised when I held the “fake” 3D-printed seahorse in my hand. While it becomes ethically problematic to buy specimens of organisms like seahorses, something of it is captured, and communicated, in a reproduction. I can still trace its exoskeleton, and marvel at its strange symmetry. This symmetry, incidentally, is being analysed for its potential in robotics. Seahorses have unusual tails – instead of the cylindrical trail structure found in most animals, theirs have a square cross-sectional architecture, resulting in a unique combination of toughness and flexibility. In fact, when studying the unique abilities of the seahorse’s tail, researchers have actually used 3D-printed specimens.

Seahorse from the Museum’s collection. Even in Victorian times, long before 3D printers, there seems to have been a desire to emphasise that souvenir seahorses were “natural” – i.e. not man-made. Was it because seahorses are easily preserved and so attractive when dead and dried?

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History has a largely unexplored wealth of models and casts. Many of them date to the second half of the 19th Century, the heyday of their production. Made from glass, wax, metal, wood, plaster, papier-mâché or, indeed, actual bone and feathers, they were modelled, cast, sculpted, glued, painted and mounted to enhance and preserve our understanding and appreciation of nature. But they also tell of scientific discoveries and controversies, research and teaching, rivalries and collaboration, politics and society, ideas and identities.

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Spot the replica – both the specimen and the 3D printed seahorse are “Wissensdinge”, they have a context and provide valuable information.

I will trace these complex relationships in a collaborative and interdisciplinary PhD project called “Nature of Replication”. This is funded by the AHRC and jointly supervised by the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The 3D-printed seahorse now lives alongside my real seahorse. So I like to think of my project as a journey that started with one seahorse, and continues with another.

Is it real? – models, casts and replicas

One of the most common questions asked about our specimens, from visitors of all ages, is ‘Is it real?’. This seemingly simple question is actually many questions in one and hides a complexity of answers. 

In this FAQ mini-series we’ll unpack the ‘Is it real?’ conundrum by looking at different types of natural history specimens in turn. We’ll ask ‘Is it a real animal?’, ‘Is it real biological remains?’, ‘Is it a model?’ and many more reality-check questions. Here’s your final installment…

There’s nothing like standing under a huge T.rex skeleton, staring up at its ferocious jaws, to get the blood pumping. Visitors often ask “Is it real?” and look rather deflated when they find out it’s a cast. So why do we include casts, models or replicas in our displays, if they don’t have the same impact as the real deal? The truth is that they’re valuable additions to museum displays, allowing the public to engage with specimens that would otherwise be hidden behind the scenes.

Please touch! A cast of the famous Oxford Dodo helps visitors explore this fragile specimen.

On any visit to the Museum, you’ll come across labels that tell you the object you’re looking at is a cast. It could be a dinosaur skeleton, a brightly coloured fish, an amphibian specimen or even the head of the Oxford Dodo. But what is a cast? Casts are made by taking a mould of bones, or sometimes whole animals, then filling that mould with resin, plaster or fibre glass to make a copy. They can be incredibly accurate or lifelike.

It’s extremely rare to find whole dinosaur skeletons, and very difficult to mount heavy fossils (weighing tonnes) onto large armatures. Our Tyrannosaurus rex is a cast of the famous Stan, found in South Dakota, USA, and one of the best preserved skeletons of its kind in the world. But the “real” Stan is kept at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, so the only way we can offer the breath-taking experience of standing beneath a T. rex here in Oxford is by using a cast.

The Dodo Roadshow in 2015 would have been a lot less fun without our life-size dodo model

Even Stan has some bones missing, so sometimes casts are made up of several individual skeletons. Copies can also be made to give the impression of a more complete skeleton. For example, if a left bone is missing, a mirror of the right hand bone can be created. We call these specimens “composites”.

Animals such as fish and frogs aren’t easy to taxidermy; their skins shrivel, dry out, lose their colour and crack. Painted casts are a good way to show what these animals look like.

A model allows us to show the intricate scales of this Blue Morpho butterfly up close.

Models, such as the giant insects on the upper gallery and the Archaeopteryx in the Evolution of Flight display (at the top of this post), are very clearly not real. These are made by model makers to show something that can’t be seen or shown with real specimens. The giant insects are a way of showing the detail of very small creatures. The palaeontological models show what we think extinct animals might have looked like in life. They’re hypothetical models based on the latest scientific research, which can change very quickly, and always have an element of artistic assumption or speculation in the details.

In this series we’ve talked about taxidermy, skeletons, fossils and more, but these are just a few of the kinds of specimens we have on display. There are also nests, plastinated models, microscope slides and dioramas, which all have a mix of real and non-real elements. When you are looking around the Museum try to think about which specimens are real and which aren’t… and how does that make you think about the specimen?

Read the other posts in the Is it real? series here.

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.

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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. http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org

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.