Detailed models crafted from glass

A glass model of Octopus vulgaris (Octopus), part of the Otago Museum collection.
A glass model of Octopus vulgaris (Octopus), part of the Otago Museum collection.
Many glass models of biological specimens are on display in the Animal Attic at Otago Museum, writes Anne Harlow.

Leopold Blaschka (1822–1895) and his son Rudolf Blaschka (1857–1939) were glass artists from Dresden, Germany, who produced detailed models of invertebrate and botanical specimens for education and display.

Leopold Blaschka started by working in the family business making glass ornaments and glass eyes, and went on to have his own business, developing a technique called “glass-spinning” which allowed him to create fine detail in the models. His son joined the business in his 20s.

Museums and universities throughout the world purchased these models because of their intricate detail and encyclopaedic range. Some biological specimens were difficult to preserve in a way that would maintain their physical integrity for study and display, and glass models were a solution that allowed institutions to avoid the problems associated with the preservation and long-term storage of natural specimens.

Otago Museum curator Frederick Wollaston Hutton (1836–1905), purchased a large selection of Blaschka models from Dresden which were on display when the Otago Museum opened in its current location on Great King St in 1877. Canterbury Museum also have a substantial collection of Blaschka models, purchased in the 19th century.

There are a few types of object at Otago Museum that straddle the two main areas in the collection which are usually clearly defined: Natural Sciences and Humanities; and the Blaschka models are the perfect example.

These models depict objects of natural science, and were intended as educational tools for students and members of the public. They were based on technical drawings and prized for their accurately detailed representations of biological specimens.

However, they can also be admired for their beauty and the skill involved in their creation by expert craftsmen. The translation of a technical drawing to a physical model would have required enormous creativity and an impressive range of glass working techniques. The colours and textures of the specimens are replicated in glass, so that even slugs and sea cucumbers become delicate objects of beauty.

Glass is fragile and the small protruding details and often flimsy mounting, such as fine wire, mean that some of the models are very delicate. It is remarkable that they survived the journey from Germany in the 1800s.

We are lucky to have these models in our collection because of their age, significance and beauty. It is our responsibility and honour to keep them safe and well cared for so that they can continue to be displayed into future centuries.

Many of the Otago Museum Blaschka models are on display now in cases in Animal Attic.

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