A Glassy Sea: where art meets science

Dr David Waterhouse, Senior Curator of Natural History and Geology

When Norwich Castle re-opened to the public between lockdowns in October 2020, an exciting new permanent display awaited visitors at the temporary entrance leading straight into the Natural History Galleries.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Leopold and his son Rudolf Blaschka created crystal creatures that were at the crossroads between science and art. Examples of their models have been exhibited as part of scientific and university collections all over the world, but they are also delicate and beautiful sculptures in their own right. It’s likely that their models were created by holding glass over a single flame, but no-one can’t be certain of this because the Blaschkas’ techniques were a closely guarded secret, which died with them.

Today, Blaschka models are very rare and precious, and are an important part of science and art history. Despite only having 20 individual models, they are so rare and delicate that Norwich Castle actually has one of the most important Blaschka collections in the UK.

Marine creatures such as sponge-like anenomes, made cunningly from glass, line up in a row in a new display
From left to right: Sea Anemone (Paractis peruviana), Sea Anemone (Sagartiogeton viduatus), Sea Anemone (Actinia ‘chioiocca’), Parasitic Sea Anemone (Peachia hastata), Dead Man’s Fingers (Alcyonium digitatum), Devonshire Cup-coral (Caryophyllia smithii), Jewel ‘Anemone’ (a Corallimorpharian)

In these unprecedented times, this display was almost entirely curated remotely, as I worked on it from home. However, the display is very much real rather than digital, and close work with Conservator Jonathan Clark and Lead Designer Lynne Avery-Johnson, meant that a first-class display has been executed.

So how do you go about curating an exhibition case in the middle of a pandemic and national lockdown? The answer is – with difficulty, but with the right team in place it’s certainly possible! To go back to the beginning; we knew that due to the exciting Royal Palace Reborn project (transforming Norwich Castle’s iconic Norman Keep) a temporary entrance into Norwich Castle’s British Bird Gallery had to be made. In 2009 the Castle’s Bird Gallery and main Natural History Gallery were updated and remodelled, but one case was left out of this redesign – the tired-looking 1960s ‘animal tracks and traces’ case. I wanted to update the case, as it would be the first thing visitors would see when they entered the museum.

Because of restrictions, we knew it needed to be relatively simple, and I also knew that we had this wonderful collection of glass models (some of which hadn’t been on display before). When I talked things through with Jonathan in the Conservation Department and Lynne in our Design & Technical Department, Jonathan came up with the idea to display the Blaschka models in there. And, I’m glad it wasn’t me that came up with the idea, as it would be Jonathan’s responsibility to prepare these century-old glass models for display. Quite the commitment!

In normal circumstances we’d all get together around a table with the models and come up with a plan to display them based on my curator’s display brief (a sort of blueprint document outlining the feeling and main point of the display, so that we all have the same idea in our heads as to how the case would look). Of course, during the pandemic this isn’t possible, so I had to curate it remotely. Luckily, all the models had previously been photographed (which is certainly not true for all of the collections I look after – there being some 1.5 million of them!). We have full access to the museum’s computer drives from home, thanks to our ingenious colleagues at Norfolk County Council’s IMT department. I was able to look up each specimen at home, and get an idea of exactly what we had and how big they were, etc.

Finding digital images of objects is one thing, but I then had to talk Jonathan through where they all were physically in our stores. Our Conservation Team had been given special dispensation to work at Norwich Castle Study Centre, as they are doing essential work to maintain the collections. Once all of the models were located, Jonathan then had to begin the process of preparing the objects for display. This isn’t as straightforward as it first sounds, as the Blaschkas didn’t just use glass for their models – they are actually a complicated mix of copper wire, glass, paint, pigments and other unknown materials, all skilfully used to give the illusion of a living underwater creature.

A Spider Octopus figurine being carefully cleaned and repaired by a conservator holding sweezers and wire.
Spider Octopus (Octopus salutii) during conservation treatment.

Some of the models had already been conserved by Jonathan and Head of Conservation Man-Yee Liu, in 2013 and 2014 for the exhibitions, ‘Curiosity: Art and the Pleasure of Knowing’ at Norwich Castle Museum and ‘Super Models: Some Assembly Required’ at Time & Tide museum in Great Yarmouth. The new case provided an opportunity to get the remainder of the models conserved. When even handling such objects feels perilous, undertaking conservation treatments such as repairs and reconstruction, presents an exciting yet daunting challenge.

In the distant past, poor storage conditions and old repairs had resulted in breakages, inappropriate use of adhesives and lots of accumulated dirt. As they are very rare, there are very few case studies on Blaschka model conservation techniques, so cleaning tests, X-radiography and research were required before work could begin. The painted surface coatings did not respond well to most solvents and cleaning solutions, which restricted choice of treatment. In addition, many of the models had been stuck onto pieces of hardboard or card with glues that had become discoloured and brittle with age.

Photographs of the process of conservation to a Musky Octopus figurine, showing dirt gradually being removed and small repairs made to the tentacles
Musky Octopus (Eledone moschata) model undergoing detailed conservation treatment

The conservation process included carefully detaching the fragile models, removing dirt and old adhesive residues with tiny swabs and an adapted vacuum system, reattaching broken fragments with conservation grade adhesives, re-shaping tentacles and reconstructing missing elements such as octopus ‘horns’, suckers and sea cucumber tube-feet. Bespoke packaging was constructed, so we could safely store the models and move them to and from galleries. Acrylic and metal mounts were also required, to provide support for the models that couldn’t sit securely.

Meanwhile Lynne, one of our talented designers had enough to go on to start work on the layout of the case. Simplicity was the key – not just because of the difficulties involved in working remotely because of the pandemic, but because we really wanted the beauty of the models to shine through, without any fancy mounts or graphics getting in the way, or overpowering the exquisiteness of the delicate glass models. The simple, almost Art Deco style of the case by Lynne and her colleagues in the Design & Technical Department allows the models to shine, and even gives a sense of the deep sea where many of the real animal live. This is where the skill of an experienced 3D designer really comes in – they have to walk the line between keeping the curator and conservator contented, sticking to the brief, balancing the budget (not a lot in this case) and keeping everything legible, visible and accessible to all visitors. It’s a highly specialised job, and a good designer with years of experience and great communications skills is worth their weight in gold.

A concept design of the display case during the planning stage, showing the shape of the tall, upright case, the text of the display, and the four shelves showing the layout of the objects to be displayed.
Digital case display plan by Lynne Avery-Johnson

My next step was to write the labels for each model. Again, pretty tricky from afar. The problem being; none of the models had any information as to what species they were! Slowly and surely from studying the pictures, looking at models in other museums’ collections and drawing on my knowledge of marine biology, I managed to identify the species of each of the models. In the Natural History Department of Norfolk Museums Service, we have a rule that scientific names are always used alongside the common English names – this is because common names can be different from country to country and even region to region, but scientific names are standardised throughout the world. Also, notice that I’m using the term ‘scientific name’, and not ‘Latin name’ – this is because just as many species names are actually derived from Ancient Greek as they are from Latin, so technically the term ‘Latin name’ is very often incorrect. From sea anemones to squid, corals to sea cucumbers – each fragile model now had a name!

A close up image of a Crystal Jelly figurine, with a smooth, bag-like body made of glass, and thin floating tentacles made of wire
Crystal ‘Jelly’ (Aequorea Victoria), despite the name this isn’t a true jellyfish, it’s a marine hydrozoan.

Once the conservation, mounts, design and labels are completed, the background graphic and labels are printed, shelves and LEDs fitted, then finally it’s time to install. The secret to any exhibition – large or small – is in the preparation, and because each key person in the team had done their job to a high standard, installation (led by Jonathan) was a comparatively simple affair. Finally, numbers corresponding to the correct labels are placed next to each model, and there you have it – a finished exhibition case!

A photograph of the completed display, showcasing many of the figurines including a shelf of octopuses, with rounded bodies, bulging eyes and eight long tentacles
Close-up of some of the installed Blaschka models in the finished display case

So far, between lockdowns, the anecdotal feedback for the display has been excellent. When Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery re-emerges from Lockdown III and opens its doors once again to the public, I’m sure more and more people will enjoy these rare and delicate models in their new setting. The best thing is – the new case is now a permanent feature of the Castle, so there will be many more years left to enjoy it!

The completed case in its entirety, situated next to the existing Natural History displays, and looking dramatic and exciting.
The finished Blaschka case in the British Wildlife Gallery at the entrance to the British Bird Gallery

With special thanks to Jonathan Clark and Lynne Avery-Johnson of Norfolk Museums Service

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