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”.

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.