3 min read

The bizarre Victorian scientific models that made object lessons out of nature

a model of a squid showing its internal organs

Squid Plaque. Photography by Rosamond Purcell.

A vast assortment of beautiful but bizarre objects relating to nineteenth-century life sciences takes centre stage at Manchester Museum

Each of the finely crafted yet uncanny objects in Manchester Museum’s Objects Lesson exhibition was created for the purpose of understanding the natural world through education, demonstration and display.

They were ammased by the avid contemporary art collector George Loudon whose passion for 19th century didactic models has seen him accumulate a collection that reveals the skill and artistry of the Victorian and Edwardian model makers as they sought to replicate the beauty and elusive workings of the things in the world around them.

These craftsmen set about capturing the momentary and the spectacular as well as phenomena in places you can never go – like the structure of the wind in scientific graphs, the deadly beauty of a box jellyfish fashioned out of glass or a plaster cast of a moon crater.

a mdeical drawing of the tendons and muscles in the armpit and breast area

Quain, Jones and Wilson, Sir William James Erasmus 2 vols medical teaching atlas. Photography by Rosamond Purcell

a skull of a snake seen in side profile

Flat models of snake skulls (Python). Photography by Rosamond Purcell

a glass model of a jellyfish

Physalia’ Blaschka model. Photography by Rosamond Purcell

“He’s genuinely passionate about these objects,” says Curator of Earth Science, David Gelsthorpe of Loudon and his curious collection. “But he’s collecting them from a particular angle as artworks. For him there’s a seamless transition from collecting Andy Warhol pieces through to really quite bizarre things.”

Loudon’s collection of these unusual objects numbers over 200 artifacts and was first curated in 2015 for his book Object Lessons: The Visualisation of Nineteenth-Century Life Sciences.

“We visited his house in Kensington, and it’s spectacular,” adds Gelshtorpe. “You go into his beautiful drawing room and he’s got papier-mâché velvet mushrooms on his grand piano and that kind of thing.”

Treasures making the visit north from Kensington include Japanese teaching scrolls, wax fruits, intricate plant and animal models, anatomy pop up books, early illustrations of the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) and the aforementioned mushrooms.

“It’s quite a strange exhibition.”

But, explains Gelsthorpe, the exhibition is “not a cabinet of curiosities”.

“It’s not things that are weird for the sake of being weird,” he says, “these objects have been very clearly made to the highest standards specifically to help people understand the natural world.

“But it’s quite a strange exhibition as well,” he adds, “because there aren’t any real specimens in it – they have all been created by craftsmen.”

a photo of model of a mushroom with a large stalk

Papier-maché mushroom. Photography by Rosamond Purcell

a model showing the skeleton, muscles and organs of a turkey

Anatomical model of a wild turkey. Photography by Rosamond Purcell

a photo of a box of fruit models cut to the core

A collection of boxed wax fruits from the Belgian Congo. Photography by Rosamond Purcell

Paired with similar Victorian teaching models from the collections of Manchester Museum and World Museum Liverpool these vivid tools for understanding the world around us are displayed across seven themes – ranging from time and the body to the microscopic and anatomy. In a sense the museum has taken a collection amassed according to aesthetics and added context and meaning.

“The objects are the stars…They are absolutely works of art.”

“When we first put the models together with our collection and objects from World Museum Liverpool and grouped them – suddenly the meaning leaped out from them and they began to make sense as a group,” says Gelsthorpe. “You can really understand how they were used for teaching and spreading the word about how amazing the world is.

“Equally we think we are presenting them in such a way that the objects are the stars, and if you get anything from this exhibition it is a sense that the finest craftsmen working with scientists across the world have created these things. They are absolutely works of art.”

a close up of a model of exotic plants

Botanical models. Photography by Rosamond Purcell

Reflecting a moment in time when scientific discovery was rapidly developing, but technology could not keep up with techniques to record such findings, these exotic objects may have lost their educational function, but for a while at least they can now be viewed from a fresh perspective and appreciated as objects of odd but beguiling beauty.

Object Lessons is at Manchester Museum, May 19 – August 20 2017.


Manchester Museum

Manchester, Greater Manchester

Encounter Manchester Museum’s assortment of treasures from the natural world and the many cultures it is home to. Visitor favourites include dinosaurs, mummies and live amphibians and reptiles.

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *