It may seem odd for a curator of a zoology museum, surrounded by ‘real’ animal bodies to pick a series of plastic models as favourite specimens but I hope to demonstrate how these objects are worthy of a place next to the amazing specimens already highlighted by the artists, historians, curators and conservators of the Preserved! community.
There are many different ways of being dead. The fly corpse on the window sill can be considered dead, a skeleton in a museum dead-dead and a skilfully prepared taxidermy specimen as undead. I’d like to erect another category of being dead and that is dead and buried, specifically the fossil remains of organisms. Preserved by nature and perhaps prepared by humans we tend to treat dead and buried (and preserved) objects as distinct from the other kinds of being dead. This is enshrined in the structure of the scientific study of organisms, with the zoological and botanical sciences very much separated from the palaeobiological sciences in communities, job titles, society, founding documents, journals, museums and university departments. Obviously they are part of the same spectrum of study but only rarely is it that the two fields interact or that a scientist will span both the extinct and extant.
So why do these models – I’m getting there – carry so much meaning for me? The Grant Museum holds an almost complete collection of French company Starlux’s plastic prehistoric creatures including armoured fish, early amphibians, dinosaurs, birds and mammals. Donated to the museum in the 1980s for use in teaching school groups, the mammals and birds are presented in this lovely cardboard box, which is a quirky object in itself. What is important about them is their aspects as museum objects and models.
Curators would argue whether they were museum objects or not. Ethically, at least, museums should value each and every object in their care equally, but historically there has been a division in value between real objects, display objects, accessioned objects, models, casts, handling collections and teaching collections. There is not space here for discussing the nuances of these overlapping categories but at one point such celebrated objects as Ziegler wax models and Blaschka glass models would have been seen as trivial or quotidian and kept off the books as merely teaching objects, not museum objects proper (see images). Perhaps in a hundred years these models will also be sought after and valued on a par with a lot of the models featured on this very site. One of my predecessors obviously felt the same way as I do, as our plastic model collection is one of the best documented parts of the collection. Each one is individually labelled and for some of the models that need constructing, their instruction booklets form part of the museum archive. Currently, aside from the excellent dinomania display of piled plastic dinosaurs and ephemera in the Natural History Museum’s dinosaur gallery, these kinds of objects are second class in museums but are researched, discussed, sought after and preserved by a huge online community. I refer you to the dinosaur toy blog http://www.dinotoyblog.com/ as a starting point. Although not all of our model collection is on permanent display in the Grant Museum, it is no coincidence that these models were put on display as part of UCL Museums and Public Engagement’s Disposal? exhibition http://www.ucl.ac.uk/media/library/disposal and were highlighted as one of our QRator Project questions Real or Fake? http://www.qrator.org/portfolio/real-or-fake/
As models they play an important role in demonstrating what biology is as well as being our main point of reference for displaying dead and buried objects. Although as a science, biology appears to be empirical and objective there is not a single process or research methodology that is not based on modelling. From researching the effects of climate change to describing a new taxon of insect, biology is the art of condensing complex systems and relationships into a model that allows neat and clear understanding. From the articulation of the limbs on a skeleton, through to the positioning of a taxidermy specimen and the creation of these gaudy plastic models, each of these processes incorporates modelling as a form of expressing ideas. Although these models may have been created by a French model maker probably referring to the latest popular scientific literature, they embody the ideas of their time and/or the individual preserved in plastic. We may still think of these objects as ephemera, not worthy of being in a museum but their impact should not be underestimated. As time has shown, inaccurate models such as these and iconic but incorrect prehistoric creatures on film and in video games still hold firm in the public consciousness despite the best efforts of palaeontologists.
Lastly I chose these objects because the weird and wonderful mammals and birds you see here are relatively obscure: too close in appearance to modern animals to solicit responses of wonder and surprise, they are upstaged by the dinosaurs. Giant ground sloths, rhino-like mammals, giant predatory birds, shovel-tusked elephants and deer-like creatures with forked nose horns – these animals and their models snared me as a young boy and were the reason why I went into palaeontology in the first place.
All images of the Starlux models © The Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London