October’s Object of the Month on our website features the beautiful Blaschka models, delicate glass representations of sea creatures and other invertebrates created by master craftsmen Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. Here curator Geoff Swinney talks about the appeal of the models.

Geoff SwinneyBy Geoff Swinney, Research Curator, National Museums Scotland

I have long been fascinated and intrigued by these glass models. For me, these models are from a different world. They were made in a time when photography was in its infancy, and the aquarium was an expensive new invention. In such a world how could people be shown the smaller animals which live in the seas? Sure, there were engravings in scientific books, but Leopold Blaschka devised a way of bringing these pictures ‘to life’ in 3D.

Glass model of Anthea cereus

Glass model of Anthea cereus by Leopold Blaschka, National Museums Scotland

I find it fascinating to think that opportunities to see the living animals close up and in detail were so rare that even Blaschka himself had to work from scientific illustrations. These he translated from mere two dimensional pictures into lifelike models.

Glass was an ideal medium for capturing the delicacy and beauty of these invertebrate animals. His training as a jeweller enabled him to craft the glass into exquisite representations of how the animals would look when alive.

  • Are the models works of art?
  • Are they examples of superb craftsmanship?
  • Or are they merely exquisitely-made teaching aids?

For me such questions are pointless. The models, quite simply, are things of beauty, made with great skill and ingenuity. They lie at an intersection of art, natural science and technology. I am delighted, therefore, that when the refurbished Victorian portion of the National Museum of Scotland opens next summer, the models will feature in the Window on the World section of the Grand Gallery. There they are not associated with any particular section of the collections: they are neither art nor science. In this setting, the models may be enjoyed in a variety of ways and can tell a variety of different intersecting stories drawn from both art and science.

The Blaschka models epitomise National Museums Scotland’s declared aim to be a place ‘Where the arts and sciences intermingle: a space where the full spectrum of human creativity and invention, across cultural boundaries and through time, can be seen alongside the wonder and diversity of the natural world.’

John HawellA guest post by John Hawell of the Clyde Bat Group

24 August 2010. The nights are gradually drawing in and we start tonight’s bat walk a wee bit earlier, at 8:30pm. There is a strong and chilly wind blowing from the south-west and the cloud cover is almost complete  - but it’s bright, following a pleasant sunny afternoon, and dry.

We have a small group assembled tonight, just three adults and three children. After the usual introduction we set off. A fox dashes across the road behind us   ~   just a fleeting glimpse. We then hear our first bat at 8:58pm, a soprano pipistrelle. It takes a while before we see it. Only when the bat flies clear of the tree canopy and against the light sky does it comes into view. Soon there are others flitting about.

Red fox

Red fox from Skandinavisk Dyrepark, Denmark by Malene Thyssen.

Pipistrelles are our smallest and most common species of bat in the UK. In fact we have two species of common pipistrelles that until just a few years ago were considered to be a single species. Bat detectors alerted bat workers to the realisation that some bats were echo-locating at about 45 kHz, while others were echo-locating at about 55 kHz. Further research revealed that the bats looked different - those calling at about 45 kHz had black faces and because of their resemblance to bandits, now tend to be called bandit pipistrelles! The others, because they ‘sing’ at a higher level, are commonly called soprano pipistrelles.

Further research revealed that these two species don’t just look different, and have distinguishably different calls, they behave differently as well. Sometimes the two species are encountered in the same general area but normally one would expect to encounter either one or the other, depending what type of habitat you find them in.

Common pipistrelle by Hugh Clark / Bat Conservation Trust

Common pipistrelle by Hugh Clark / Bat Conservation Trust.

Of course, it is impossible to hear these echo-location calls without the aid of a bat detector. The electronic bat detector brings these calls down to a level that the human ear can appreciate. The high frequency calls emitted by the bat are bounced back off any objects in their path. Their brains compute the echoing sound and form it into an audio image of their surroundings. In this way bats can move about freely, and catch their food, even in total darkness.

Despite using high frequency calls, much higher pitched than human beings would ever be able to hear, bats do also make calls that we can hear  – and they have eyes too! Anybody that has stood near a bat maternity roost at dusk on a summer evening will hear bats twittering and chirping in their excitement to leave the roost as soon as it is dark enough. But once bats are airborne, their high frequency echo-location system kicks in and they become silent to our ears, unless we use an electronic bat detector: then their secret world is suddenly revealed to us.

From 9:05pm onwards there are loads of bats about. The bat detectors are busy and the two young boys in particular are excited by the sight and sound of so many bats whizzing about in the twilight.

We encounter another swarm of feeding bats in the farmhouse garden. This is great. From a distance we investigate a bat roost in an old tree but we don’t see any bats emerge  - they are probably all out and whizzing about by now. We hear feeding buzzes through the detectors. The bats are feeding  - on midges!

Common snail

Common snail (Helix aspersa) by the champ on Flickr.

It is time to move on. As we leave the garden, in the torchlight we spot a large garden snail being closely followed by a large leopard slug. The boys have never seen such things before and they are fascinated.

Limax maximum part of Blaschka models at National Museum of Scotland

Leopard slug or Limax maximum part of Blaschka models at National Museum of Scotland.

The full moon is rising higher into the sky as we make our way back through the farm to our starting point. We hear an occasional bat as we proceed but most of them are behind us now, still feeding in the vicinity of the large trees and old buildings. One of the black farm cats joins us now and seems very pleased to see us. We finally finish tonight’s walk at 9:45pm.

By Katie Theodoros, Intern with the Community Engagement Team

The debut of our first story box took place last weekend here at the National Museum of Scotland during a storytelling event for National Family Week. The theme for this story box is Animals. It was created by a Family Learning Group in Leith along with help from Heather Yule, a professional storyteller.

The group really enjoyed the traditional Scottish tales, especially when it was time to make all the various animal noises to go along with the stories! The children were also given a chance to tell their own stories about animals, some were very creative and made up right there on the spot. The books that were chosen for this animal themed story box were The Tortoise and the Hare and Aesop’s Funky Fables.

Children taking part in a story box workshop with a Family Learning Group

Children taking part in a story box workshop with a Family Learning Group.

Thanks to a loan from the Scottish Storytelling Centre, we were able to bring along a sample story box. The soft toys and finger puppets were a big hit with the children and they enjoyed the feeling of discovery while digging through the box for the animals in each story while Heather was telling it. The group also had some great input for what else they would like in their story box, everything from riddles to masks to fluffy slippers with animals on them were suggested.

Hands up who wants to hear a story!

Hands up who wants to hear a story!

Telling stories at the story box workshop at McDonald Road Library

Telling stories at the story box workshop at McDonald Road Library.

The Animal Tales storytelling session took place in the Treasured: Wonderful Things, Amazing Stories exhibition, with four performances throughout the weekend.  Heather read the selected books while using the items in the story box to enhance each tale. The storytelling sessions were accompanied by mask making, plate decorating and fossil making, as well as a dive though the treasured box.  Visitors used the masks in the Treasured exhibition and the masks from the story box as inspiration for some beautiful designs.

Making masks at the Animal Tales storytelling session

Making masks at the Animal Tales storytelling session.



Listening to Animal Tales in the Treasured gallery

Listening to Animal Tales in the Treasured gallery.

A masked family at the Animal Tales storytelling session

A masked family at the Animal Tales storytelling session.

By Katie Theodoros, Intern with the Community Engagement Team

I am currently undertaking a two month work placement on the Community Engagement Team in the Learning and Programmes department at the National Museum. This placement is part of the required course work for my Masters in Art Museum and Gallery Education at Newcastle University.  In September 2009, I moved to Newcastle from Boston in the US to begin the course, now I’m living in Edinburgh for the duration of the placement.  This placement was of particular interest to me because it was one of the few that involved doing outreach work.

With the reopening of the Royal Museum in summer 2011, the museum will include a new gallery called Imagine where children and families can play and share ideas together, stimulated by a series of hands-on exhibits, inspired by objects from our World Cultures and European Art Collections. One area of this gallery called Story Place will focus on the telling and making of stories and feature a display of animal themed objects.

Artist's impression of the new Imagine gallery

Artist's impression of the new Imagine gallery.

The Community Engagement Team has been busy working alongside a professional storyteller, Heather Yule, and a local Family Learning Group to put together story boxes full of soft toys, objects and games to go along with selected animal stories for the Story Place.

The cheetah in the Treasured exhibition

The cheetah in the Treasured exhibition.

A few weeks ago the Family Learning Group was invited for a tour of the exhibition Treasured: Wonderful Things, Amazing Stories at the National Museum of Scotland.  The exhibition has all types of animal specimens from a cheetah to a helmet made out of a tortoise shell.

The aim is to familiarise the family group with the museum’s collection and introduce the idea of story boxes, with ultimately the participants choosing the contents of the bags. The group will also work with Heather to produce their own story based on animals they have selected from Treasured. The story boxes and the participant’s story (told by Heather) will be showcased to the public at the Museum during National Family Week on the 5th and 6th of June.

Next week Heather and I will be meeting the group offsite for a workshop to tell stories and to gather ideas for the content of the story boxes.

You can find out more about the Royal Museum Project and Treasured exhibitions here.


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