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The Blaschka Collection 

Glass model of Phymactis pustulata. Canterbury Museum 1884.137.65

CM017 160907
Artistic and Scientific Glass Marvels
By Rebecca Le Grice, Curator Natural History

Scientists and casual observers alike place a lot of value in being able to see an organism in its most life-like state. Preserving a part of the natural world in a way that captures this is sometimes not as easy as fixing a bony fish in formalin or pinning an insect. So, what do you do when a part of the natural world is difficult to preserve or loses a critical part of its essence when taken from its habitat and stored in a museum collection?

Leopold Blaschka’s passion for natural history, practical skills in glassworking, and (in hindsight) the serendipitous becalming of a sailing ship he was travelling on allowing him time for observing and sketching marine life, resulted in a spectacular project which addressed this conundrum.

During the nineteenth century in Dresden, Leopold and his son Rudolf crafted a glass-working method to create and accurately capture the forms of creatures from the natural world. Previously Leopold had worked in a family business producing ornaments, lab equipment and glass eyes. At the time, making natural history models was a hobby of Leopolds, though that changed when Prince Camille de Rohan commissioned him to create 100 glass model orchids for his private collection. From this he was able to move into the business of creating natural history specimens after the director of Dresden Natural History Museum saw the orchids, and realising the scientific value in Leopold’s works, commissioned 12 sea anemones, creatures that he had found impossible to preserve for display. Leopold’s artistic method proved particularly popular in detailing diaphanous creatures such as jellyfish which couldn’t be preserved correctly as preserving fluid stripped them of virtually all their natural colours. These works, crafted from glass, were not only excellent teaching and research tools but each was, and is, a piece of art. The hot topic of evolutionary theory at the time contributed to their worldwide popularity, as they enabled the visualisation of organisms for both scientists and the public in a new way. Scientists of the time provided the Blaschkas with descriptions and illustrations of different organisms to make, creating a truly collaborative process between science and art.

Canterbury Museum holds 133 extant Blaschka models, Aotearoa’s largest single collection, with the first order made by Julius von Haast arriving in 1883. Many of these species are from in the Northern Hemisphere, but some are found in New Zealand waters including the Portuguese man-of-war, better known here as the bluebottle. Each Blaschka model, when presented with information about the organism it depicts, offers the viewer greater insight into the organism and its behaviour. For example, it is rare to see a jellyfish in its natural habitat and when you find one on the beach, it is hard to image how that gelatinous blob might look when in its natural form, supported by the water.

Collection highlights 

1884 137 33
1884 137 44
1884 137 32
1884 137 61 b