Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales

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One of the many challenges curatorial departments face, especially within the Natural Sciences, is making specimens that are stored in our collections accessible to the wider public in a form where they can get a real sense of the what these specimens actually look and feel like. There is no real substitute to having specimens on display in the galleries and being able to see the texture, shape and scale at first hand, but this not always possible as gallary space is limited and only a tiny proportion of the 3 million specimens we hold in our natural sciences collections can ever be out on display at any one time.   

The museum is undertaking a large scale project to make our collections visible online in terms of collection data and images, but an exciting technique is now allowing us to produce and display 3D models of our specimens in fantastic detail, which is probably the closest you can get to having the specimen in front of you.

3D Scanning has been around for sometime now. Back in 2012, the department of Geology (now part of the department of Natural Sciences) was a lead partner in a JISC funded project to digitise all Type fossils held in the UK. Many of our type fossils were scanned in 3D during this project and are avalible to view on the website (3d-fossils.ac.uk). However, the technology for 3D scanning has moved on rapidly in the time since, and we are fortunate to now have the one of the the most up-to-date 3D scanners available at present - the Artec Spider HD. Our new scanner allows us the capture detail beyond the level we could previously achieve, and in much less time.

The museum now has a presence on the popular 3D model web platfom SketchFab, which is host to thousands of models produced by the public as well as other museums and gallaries across the world. Making the 3D models we produce available on the is platform allows us to promote our collections to a large audience who although may already be engaged in 3D modelling, may not necessarily be engaging with museums.

Dracoraptor hangani by Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales on Sketchfab

By no means would we expect to create models of our entire collections (the time and resources required would be huge!) but scanning some of our more scientifically important or, perhaps, charismatic specimens allows us to get parts of our collections out there for the public to engage with in a new way.

We are still learning the capabilities (and limitations) of our new scanner, and discovering which specimens and objects are best suited for scanning, but over the coming months more models will be added to the museum sketchfab site and will begin to be integrated into our own online collection websites.  

During past decades changes in land use over large areas have resulted in a significant loss of natural grasslands and meadow flowers, and thus food resources and habitats for insects. The number of pollinator species has declined dramatically and this poses a threat to the pollination of commercial crops.

The Welsh Government’s Action Plan for Pollinators has resulted in a number of initiatives by local authorities and projects by charitable organisations to promote actions for increasing the areas that can sustain meadow habitats. In many places, including public parks and road verges, wild flower areas have been established to improve local environmental quality and provide suitable habitats for pollinators. This would hopefully lead to an increase in biodiversity in Wales, with more diverse plant and animal communities.

To support these initiatives and efforts by local authorities the Department of Natural Sciences of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales offers workshops utilising its collections and knowledge. The Botany Section held a meadow plants identification workshop for Torfaen County Borough Council staff. The day began with an introduction to meadow plants, meadow ecology and pollination. This was followed by a hands-on session looking at flowers commonly found in meadows with the aid of microscopes. The workshop was lively and interesting and catered for a range of botanical experience.

To help identification we provided an information pack for over 60 meadow plant species. It contains descriptions and illustrations of species and information about their ecology and distribution in the British Isles.

The workshop ended with a visit to New Grove Meadows in Monmouthshire which are owned and managed by the Gwent Wildlife Trust, and which are very good examples of local, well-established and species rich wildflower meadows.

Amgueddfa Cymru’s sites support diverse Welsh habitats, which include wildflower meadows. Recently, we have transformed a corner of our most urban site, Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd-National Museum Cardiff, into a meadow and a place wildlife can thrive. This Urban Meadow and City Bees project aims to draw attention to the need for green spaces for pollinators in urban areas. The meadow is not only a good source of nectar and pollen for the bees occupying the three beehives on the Museum roof, but is also an outside learning area to inspire new meadow advocates.

Our new exciting, family-friendly exhibition Wriggle has now opened and delves into the wonderful world of worms. As part of this exhibition we have put together a display of some very historic worm models made of glass. These are from a part of our collections called the ‘Blaschka glass model collection’. The models were made by the German glass-worker and naturalist Leopold Blaschka, along with his son, Rudolf, in the latter half of the 1800s’. This period was a time of great scientific discovery and new museums were opening to the public with their galleries displaying fossils, plants and animals from across the globe.

However many types of animal and plant specimens are very difficult to preserve and display, particularly soft-bodied animals, such as jellyfish, marine worms and sea anemones. The best method is to preserve in some sort of preserving fluid such as ethanol or formaldehyde but colours quickly faded and their shapes became distorted. Leopold Blaschka devised a solution to this problem by using his glass working skills to accurately model these animals out of glass. Together with his son, he went on to establish a successful business supplying glass models, mostly of marine animals, to museums worldwide during the latter half of the 19th century.

Initially the Blaschkas relied on illustrations in books as sources of reference for the glass animals, and many of the models are three dimensional representations of animals that they never saw in reality. However, in later years they increasingly based the models on their own observations of real animals, either during field trips or from live specimens in specially built aquariums in their house. This development in their naturalist skills is seen in the models as over time they became increasingly scientifically accurate.  

Amgueddfa Cymru has an extensive collection of these historic glass models representing a wide range of sea creatures such as sea slugs, sea cucumbers, marine worms, cephalopods and sea anemones. A selection of these models is on permanent display in the Marine galleries both as part of a stand-alone case, and as part of the surrounding displays. However for the Wriggle exhibition we have also put together a display case of all our worm related Blaschka glass models. Some of these models have not been on display for many years, and required delicate conservation work to enable their handling and display in the exhibition. A good example is the life series of three enlarged models of the marine worm Proceraea cornuta. All three of the models had been previously damaged in some way and careful conservation work was required to anable their safe display.

Also on display are models of commonly found species from our seashores such as the lugworm Arenicola marina and the ragworm Perinereis cultrifera.

The models of the leech Pontobdella (Hirudo) vittata and the Peacock worm Sabella pavonina are also notable in that they are still mounted on the packing card the Blaschkas’ would have originally shipped the models out on.

However personal favourites are the models of two tube living worms - the sand mason worm Lanice conchilega and the exquisite sphagetti worm Pista cretacea. Both have dense tentacle crowns which becomes an astonishing piece of craftsmanship and taxonomic accuracy when fashioned in glass!

Further information on the museums Blaschka glass model collectin can also be found online at http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/rhagor/galleries/blaschka/ .

When you turn a corner in our Evolution of Wales Galleries don’t be surprised if you find Dracoraptor hangani, the new Welsh dinosaur, peering down on you from its perch on a rock.

The skeleton of this small meat eating dinosaur, currently on display in the entrance hall of the museum, has fascinated the public but palaeontologists at Amgueddfa Cymru wanted a life-like model of the animal to really show how it looked when it was alive 200 million years ago in the Jurassic.

Bob Nicholls a Bristol–based palaeoartist was commissioned to undertake this task. First Bob had to undertake extensive research to enable him reconstruct the dinosaur. He examined the bones and drew an anatomically accurate skeleton, comparing it to other species. Then added the soft tissue and considered how it would have lived before making an anatomically accurate model using steel, polystyrene, and clay. This was then moulded and a cast made of fibreglass and resin.

It was important to make sure that the reconstruction was as scientifically accurate as possible. Palaeontologists think that the body might have been covered in a feathery down, and possibly with quills along its back and Bob carefully applied feathers to the surface of the model and long quill-like feathers on the back, tail and neck. This was a meticulous process because they all had to be attached in a way that looked natural.

The project took over three months of painstaking work and after it was completed Bob said “There is no greater honour for a palaeo-artist than to be the first to show the world what a long extinct animal looked like”.

The result is incredible - you can imagine Dracoraptor jumping down into the gallery and running around.

During the past two weeks our Geology galleries were closed for essential maintenance. Now they are open to the public again, much to the delight of anyone looking after dinosaur-mad 6-year olds, who, quite rightly, have been disappointed by the temporary withdrawal of some of National Museum Cardiff’s most popular displays.

So in you come for a peek of all those refreshed displays. But what’s that? Seemingly nothing has changed?? Everything still looks as it did before the ‘major refurbishment’ – so what was so major about it?

The idea of undertaking maintenance was not to change the displays – apparently our visitors are happy with the way they are – but to update technology and fix things that were broken. This is why you have to look closely to spot what we have been so busy doing. Very busy in fact; including the planning phase, which took several months, we had at least 23 people working on the gallery. It was very busy every day, with staff and contractors working around each other, from the dinosaur foot prints pavement all the way up to the ceiling (which is 12m high in this gallery).

What you won’t notice is that the fire beams were replaced to alert us early and reliably in the event of a fire. You’ll have to look closely to spot the new lights: the spot lights underneath the ceiling are now all converted to LED. You may find that the image quality of the display screens is a million times better than it was before. What you certainly should notice is that the displays are much cleaner. We also repaired damage to displays. As the saying goes: if you touch - we need to touch up. The paint work, that is. And if anyone happens to walk into a display case the specimens inside move sometimes. If we don’t spot this early enough, they can topple off their shelf and break. We used the opportunity last week to put them all back in their place, hence our plea to you: this is now not a race to see how quickly they can be knocked off their perch again, so absolutely no prize for anyone who thinks they can dislodge the displays. Our specimens – which, actually, belong not to the museum but to the Welsh public – are fragile and repairing them costs tax payers’ money, which we do our best not to waste.

There is one thing that is entirely new to the gallery, something which will be obvious immediately to said 6-year old dinosaur enthusiast (and those of any other age, too): the new Welsh dinosaur now has a permanent home as part of our dinosaur display. A life-sized artist’s impression, feathers and colours and all, is now peeking from the early Jurassic back to its Triassic cousins. It is truly magnificent and inspiring, and actually one of the first models to represent the latest research that these kinds of dinosaurs were clad in feathers. The enthusiast in myself wants to add pathos to this announcement, which is difficult to express in a blog. Hence I’ll stop myself right here and simply invite you to come and see it.

Oh, one more thing. While working in the displays in the past two weeks we found countless sweet wrappers, discarded chewing gums and bits of sandwiches and apples in various hidden corners. These kinds of things encourage pests which we don’t want in the museum any more than you would want them in your house. We have the restaurant, café and schools sandwich room where you are welcome to eat, and there are bins in the Main Hall before you enter the galleries. We would be immensely grateful if you didn’t take any food into the galleries.

Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.