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The new Treasures Cadogan Gallery opened at the Museum this week with an iconic specimen from the micropalaeontology collections displayed prominently in the first case you come to when entering from the left-hand-door. Just over 10 years ago, this beautiful glass model of a radiolarian made in Dresden in 1889 by father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, was housed in a cardboard box and hidden behind the scenes at the Museum.

 

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Picture courtesy of the NHM Picture Library


Radiolarians are single celled organisms (Protozoa) that secrete tiny skeletons of opaline silica or glass so it is appropriate that the Blaschkas should re-create them in glass. They range in size from 0.03mm to 2mm and mainly have a marine solitary floating lifestyle (planktonic), although some are colonial. The model on display is enlarged approximately 1,000 times.

 

For some time it has been a goal to get the Museum collection of Blaschka models on permanent display so walking into the new gallery this week and seeing the Blaschka specimens finally on show was very exciting. It has been a great team effort enhancing the profile of the collection by research, publications, conference presentations, conservation, exhibition loans, CT-scanning, filming and exhibition design. Here are a series of pictures illustrating the journey of a small part of the Museum Blaschka collection from cardboard box to permanent display.

 

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We hardly dared open the cardboard boxes housing the collection of 18 radiolarians to show them to visitors for fear of breaking the glass models inside. The boxes had "S" written on the side in red to signify that they are salvage specimens to be removed from the Museum first, in the event of a disaster.

 

To me these glass models are real treasures, not only because of the amazing skill and artistry in their fabrication but also because they so beautifully display aspects of microscopic collections that lie hidden behind the scenes at the Museum. The radiolarian represents the only specimen from the micropalaeontology collections currently on display in the Museum galleries. The octopus and jellyfish also on display show colours and structures that are not visible in spirit collection jars and beautifully show the anatomy of each species.

 

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The Museum holds 185 Blaschka glass models of radiolarians, amoebas, heliozoans (similar to radiolarians), squid, octopuses, cuttlefish, nautiluses, nudibranchs (soft bodied marine molluscs), corals, sea anemones and jellyfishes. The Museum collection was acquired in four stages in 1866, 1876, 1883 and 1889, representing some of the earliest and last marine invertebrates made by the Blaschkas. In 1887 they started making glass flowers for Harvard University and shortly afterwards were employed exclusively by Harvard so ceased making marine invertebrates.

 

Long serving members of staff recall the collection being on display in the corridor outside the current Human Biology Exhibition in the 1970s. The collection was subsequently divided between the Palaeontology and Zoology departments where it was housed in five different locations throughout the Earth and Life Science departments. Zoology curator Miranda Lowe and I first located the specimens and searched the Museum archives and Zoology specimen registers for details.

 

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This image shows a list made by the Blaschkas in 1883 of the models sent to the British Museum including the octopus model on display in the Treasures Cadogan Gallery. The price (113 Reichsmarks) and relatively small size of the transport box (26 x 22 x 15 inches) are shown.
Image courtesy of the Rakow Reserach Library, Corning Museum of Glass, New York (CMGL Bib 94604.6).

 

Miranda and I made trips to the Blaschka archive in the Rakow Library at the Corning Museum of Glass, New York, to find out more about the history of our collections. These suggest that British Museum staff may have ordered glass taxidermy eyes from the Blaschkas in 1872 and complained when the mollusc models arrived broken in 1883.

 

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The Corning archive also includes the original drawings from which the Blaschkas worked. They gained their inspiration by direct observation from nature and from illustrations in publications like Henry Gosse's 1860 Actinologia britannica or Ernst Haeckel's 1862 monograph on the Radiolaria (see above). The publication by Haeckel was one of the first to employ evolutionary theory to explain the distribution of organisms so it is appropriate that a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species is displayed next to the Blaschka models in the Treasures Cadogan Gallery.

 

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The National Museum of Ireland copy of the radiolarian Aulosphaera elegantissima now appears on each cover of the journal Historical Biology. Reproduced with permission from Nigel Monaghan (National Museum of Ireland) and Taylor and Francis.

 

Blaschka experts met at a conference in Dublin in 2007 made possible by the kind benefaction of George Loudon with the support of the National Museum of Ireland. Miranda and I presented a paper on the Museum Blaschka Collection that was published the following year in the Blaschka conference proceedings.

 


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At the time of the conference the profile of the Museum Blaschka collection had been raised both in and outside the Museum leading to several requests from other museums to display our Blaschka models in temporary exhibitions. Models were lent to the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, Sheffield Museum and displayed in temporary exhibitions at the Museum at Tring (see above) and in The Deep here at South Kensington.

 

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Transport boxes for Blaschka models at the National Glass Centre, Sunderland. In case you were wondering, they were empty when this picture was taken. We wouldn't dream of stacking them like this if they were full!

 

Special cases were bought so that the models could be transported safely to and from exhibition venues. Bespoke inserts were made from layers of Plastazote™ foam and white Tyvek™ cloth to hold the items firmly in place during transport. These boxes were then transported in lorries usually employed for moving works of art between galleries.

 

Meanwhile, new conservation grade storage boxes for the collection were constructed initially by Felicity Bolton, then of the Museum's Palaeontology Conservation Unit. For her published work on the displayed radiolarian model, Liesa Brierley was awarded the Institute of Conservation’s Nigel Williams Prize for glass and ceramics conservation as well as a prize for the best student dissertation of 2008 at the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt, Germany.

 

She employed a two-stage cleaning process using a modified museum vacuum and a range of soft brushes followed by a mixture of solvents on an antistatic mini swab. She also reattached broken spines with reversible adhesive Paraloid™ B72, remounted some of the fine model strands using nylon micro-tubing and carried out initial CT-scanning of some of the models.

 

CT_model.jpgCT-scan of the gold centre of the displayed radiolarian not seen since the Blaschkas made the model in 1889.

 

Chris Collins and Effie Verventiotou of the Museum Conservation Centre in conjunction with Dr Farah Ahmed in the Museum's Imaging and Analysis Centre employed CT-scanning as well as other detailed analytical techniques to study the condition of the models. This has revealed valuable information about how the models were built, helping conservators to better understand deterioration processes and to tailor their conservation strategies.

 

Effie, who carried out the conservation work on the octopus and jellyfish models, remarked about the octopus, "The results of the study showed the use of animal glue and gum arabic used as coatings, adhesives and paint media. The analysis also demonstrated the use of at least two different types of glass on its construction and revealed an intricate internal structure."

 

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Helen Walker with Effie Verventiotou and Miranda Lowe at the installation of the Blaschka case of the Treasures Cadogan Gallery.

 

In conjunction with museun mount maker specialist Helen Walker from the Design and Conservation Department, Effie also used these CT-scans to print 3-D mounts for the displayed specimens so that the bases of the radiolarian and octopus specimens could be perfectly supported while on display.

 

Light levels in the gallery are kept to a minimum and the models will be changed every 6 months to avoid light damage. The mounts are attached to granite blocks and the glass cases fixed to the underlying structure of the museum building rather than resting directly on the floorboards of the gallery to minimise the possibility of vibration damage.

 

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Getting just three of the Museum Blaschka collection items from their cardboard boxes to permanent display has been a major undertaking involving a very large team. I just checked my Blaschka e-mail folder and it includes over 2,500 e-mails sent over 10 years by over 100 different people so apologies that I have failed to mention everyone involved.

 

I must have opened the Blaschka cabinet for visitors, tours and various Museum staff hundreds of times during these 10 years so I am delighted that the Museum chose and supported the work for Blaschka specimens to be part of the new gallery and available for all to see in future. Several on-line resources are available including a Treasures video on the BBC website, details of all Treasures specimens in the gallery a short Blaschka film featuring Miranda, Effie, Farah and myself (the YouTube version is also embedded below). The radiolarian and all the other Treasures in the gallery look amazing on-line but even more spectacular in real life so please visit if you can.

 

 

The Treasures Cadogan Gallery is free and open every day of the year apart from Christmas Day. As you leave, don't forget to vote for the Blaschka models as your favourite on the interactive screen situated to the left of Guy the Gorilla.

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In July my colleague Tom Hill welcomed a group of Archaeology students from the University of Birmingham to the Museum. On their tour they were shown some microfossil slides collected by retired Museum micropalaeontologist and current Museum Scientific Associate John Whittaker from various important archaeological sites showing evidence of the first humans in Britain. I've picked out three key sites where the microfossils in the collection help with dating the finds and reconstructing the environment and climate of these first human settlements in the British Isles.

 

John is an Associate Member of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project. The project is investigating the timing and nature of human occupation of the British Isles, the technology they used, their behaviour, the environment they lived in and the fauna sharing the landscape. The first site I have chosen was investigated well before the 2001 start of the AHOB Project. 

 

1. Boxgrove about 500,000 years ago

 

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This reconstruction is based on evidence from archaeological excavations at Boxgrove, funded by English Heritage, directed by Dr Mark Roberts of University College, London. (Image by Peter Dunn, English Heritage Graphics Team, copyright English Heritage and reproduced with permission).

 

In 1993 a Homo heidelbergensis shin bone was discovered during archaeological excavations at a sand and gravel quarry at Boxgrove, Sussex. At the time this represented the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain. Well preserved hand axes and butchered animal bones with flint cut marks as well as two human teeth were also discovered at the site.

 

Ostracods and Foraminifera collected by John Whittaker from Boxgrove indicate a marine raised beach and a later terrestrial deposit with freshwater ponds below chalk cliffs. The microfossils were able to show that the Slindon Sand was deposited in a wholly marine high-energy environment, whereas the Slindon Silt was deposited in a shallow intertidal environment at the margin of a regressive sea (see image above). This sort of information is vital when interpreting the archaeological finds from the site.

 

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2. Pakefield about 750,000 years ago

 

It has long been suspected that the Cromer Forest Bed exposed on the coast of East Anglia could contain evidence of human activity. In 2000, coastal erosion revealed river sediments containing flint artefacts. In 2000, these stone tools provided the earliest evidence for people in Europe living to the north of the Alps and the findings were published in the journal Nature in 2005.

 

The oldest artefacts from Pakefield came from the upper levels of estuarine silts where both marine and brackish ostracods and foraminifera have been recovered. Other evidence from mammal, beetle and plant remains suggests a setting on the floodplain of a slow flowing river where marshy areas were common.

 

The river sediments were deposited during a previously unrecognised warm stage (interglacial) and the presence of several warm loving plants and animals suggests that the climate was similar to that in present day southern Europe.

 

The interglacial sediments are overlain by a thick sequence of glacial deposits which include till and outwash sands and gravels. These contain reworked (Cretaceous and Neogene) microfossils transported from the North Sea Basin by glaciers.

 

This is important information as fossils found in these redeposited sediments could be give false indications as to the climatic setting and dating of the any finds.

 

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The extinct freshwater ostracod Scordiscia marinae has been found at both Pakefield and Boxgrove and is characteristic of the Middle Pleistocene period.

 

3. Happisburgh about 840,000-950,000 years ago

 

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Reconstruction of the site at Happisburgh by John Sibbick. (copyright AHOB/John Sibbick)

 

Shortly after the Pakefield discoveries, Mike Chambers was out walking his dog at on the beach at Happisburgh (prounced Haze-boro) and discovered a flint handaxe in sediments recently exposed on the foreshore. This remarkable discovery sparked a major programme of geological and archaeological work at the site that has discovered at least four other Palaeolithic sites at Happisburgh.

 

One of the sites is even older than Pakefield and pushes the timing of the occupation of Britain back by at least 100,000 years. The key geological formation has since been named the Hill House after the local pub!

 

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A Palaeogeographic map of Britain the in Early Pleistocene (about showing the land bridge between Europe and the position of the Thames and Bytham rivers. (Courtesy of Simon Parfitt and the AHOB Project).

 

At this time there was a land bridge between Britain and France that would have aided migration of humans from continental Europe. The English Channel was first cut about 450,000 years ago following a major flood from a glacially impounded lake in the position of the present day southern North Sea. The Thames did not follow its current course but flowed further north through Norfolk converging with the ancient river Bytham.

 

The saltmarsh foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens has been recovered from Happisburgh and is consistent with interpretations that the site is situated near the mouth of the ancient large river, possibly the River Thames.

 

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The foraminiferal species Jadammina macrescens is common in saltmarsh environments.

 

Pollen and mammal fossils suggest that the climate was similar to that of southern Sweden and Norway of today with extensive conifer forest and grasslands. The floodplains were roamed by herds of mammoth and horses. Foraminifera like the species Ammonia batavus are particularly useful climatic indicators.

 

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The foraminiferal species Ammonia batavus is characteristic of warmer climates.

 

The dating of the deposit is provided by a combination of mammoth, horse, beetle and vole finds as well as the Middle Pleistocene ostracod Scordiscia marinae. Work by John Whittaker and the AHOB team at a number of other Pleistocene sites across the SE of Britain has increased the potential of ostracods as tools for dating these sediments.

 

The microfossil collections from these important archaeological sites deposited here at the Museum are an important example of collections that support the findings of a high-profile project that is regularly in the national news.

Giles Miller

Giles Miller

Member since: Apr 21, 2010

This is Giles Miller's Curator of Micropalaeontology blog. I make the Museum micropalaeontology collections available to visitors from all over the world, publish articles on the collections, give public talks and occasionally make collections myself.

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