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Historic curiosities celebrate both art and science in 'Object Lessons' at Manchester Museum
Squid Plaque. Photography by Rosamond Purcell.

MANCHESTER.- For the first time, the private collection of prolific art collector George Loudon has gone on public display as part of ‘Object Lessons’ at Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester. The exhibition showcases his intriguing collection of 19th century life science teaching objects, offering visitors a unique opportunity to view the natural world through the eyes of a Victorian scientist.

Each of these finely crafted objects was created for the purpose of understanding the natural world through education, demonstration and display. The beautiful objects blurred the boundaries between art and science and brought together the world’s leading scientists and most accomplished craftsmen. They reflect a moment in time when scientific discovery was rapidly developing, but technology could not keep up with techniques to record such findings. Over time, these items have lost their educational function but can now be viewed from a fresh perspective and appreciated as objects of odd but beguiling beauty.

Prior to collecting these objects Loudon amassed an impressive collection of contemporary art. However, following a visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History his interest turned to these scientific objects which he instantly saw as works of art in their own right. His passion for these unusual, and often bizarre objects has now grown into a collection of over 200 artifacts. First curated in 2015 for his book Object Lessons: The Visualisation of Nineteenth-Century Life Sciences, his personal collection will now be explored through seven themes at Manchester Museum.

Craftsmanship pays particular attention to the highly-acclaimed Blaschka glass models, created by German glassworkers Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf. These incredibly detailed models of soft-bodied animals allowed 19th century scientists to record these fascinating creatures at a time when underwater photography was not yet available.

In Understanding the Body models are used to explore the shape, movement and function of the body. A life-size papier-mâché anatomical wild turkey sits alongside an exploded cod skull and early German models used to teach the bite of a rattlesnake.

Recording the Extraordinary focuses on ways to record unusual things that are difficult to describe in words: real phenomena at the edge of make-believe, folklore and fantasy. Early illustrations of the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) near Cambridge in 1847, sit alongside a plaster moon crater and a globe of the stars.

Exaggerated papier-mâché flowers and an Edwardian pop-up human anatomy book form part of Looking Inside. This section celebrates the importance of plant and animal models and how they were essential to properly understanding how they worked during the Victorian era.

Teaching Museum takes an overarching look at the context in which these models were created. It explores how these artifacts and illustrated posters were invaluable in teaching life science in the 19th century. Highlights include Japanese teaching scrolls from 1843 and wax fruits.

Minute details of plants and animals, as well as microscopic creatures are on display in Revealing the Microscopic including Early French flea photographs and models of pollen and penicillin.

Framing Time explores the vastness of time and how life might have existed in the past. Some of the first illustrations of the Grand Canyon from the 1870s are being shown alongside early reconstructions of long extinct fossils.

On his collection George Loudon commented: ‘A shared passion for contemporary art and for 19th century didactic models may seem an unlikely combination, but in my mind they evoke fascinating comparisons alongside one another.’

David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science at Manchester Museum commented: ‘Object Lessons is an amazing opportunity to see George Loudon’s private collection for the first time. Stunningly beautiful glass jellyfish, velvet mushrooms and papier-mâché flowers can only inspire you to think about the natural world in a new way.’

Loudon’s collection is being displayed alongside stunning models from Manchester Museum and World Museum, Liverpool.

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