Identifying the Museum’s Blaschka glass models

In 2009 archivist Patricia Egan demonstrated that the fragile glass models in the Museum’s Archives were made by famous 19th-century German glass makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. The collection consists of 48 surviving models along with some display labels. The task of identifying the models involved national and international assistance.

Blaschka glass model of Actinia chiococca

Blaschka glass model of Actinia chiococca
Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

Marine invertebrates quickly disintegrate out of water. If they are preserved they can easily become distorted and lose their vibrant colours. For 19th-century scientists there was only a brief window to describe and illustrate these exciting new creatures.

Initially the Blaschkas based their replicas on the illustrated publications of scientists such as Philip Gosse, GB Sowerby and Ernst Haeckel. Despite the Blaschkas' painstaking efforts to faithfully reproduce the specimens it is very difficult to produce three-dimensional glass models from two-dimensional illustrations, resulting in some anatomical inaccuracies. The Blaschkas were probably also influenced by Haeckels’s views of stylistic symmetry, with further loss of accuracy. The models we have are accurate representations of the illustrations but not necessarily the marine creatures.

Further complicating the task of naming the models, there was no link between the surviving models and the surviving specimen display labels. In fact there are more labels than models. However some of the models have number stickers on the under surface.

Patricia turned to Australian anemone expert Michela Mitchell from the Victoria Museum along with Chris Meechan from the Wales Museum for help. Chris was able to confirm that some of the numbers referred to the model number in the Blaschkas’ Catalogue of 1871, while Michela demonstrated the link between some of our models and the illustrations in, for example, Philip Gosses’ Actinolgia Britannica: A History of British Sea Anemones and Corals.

With the help of these experts, all but one of the Blaschka models held by the Australian Museum have now been identifed. Can you help us name the last glass model?

Patricia Egan , Archivist
Last Updated: