True to form: models made for science

Detail from leaf model

An intriguing exhibition at the University of Sydney’s Macleay Museum provides a rare opportunity to see models used in the teaching of science and medicine at the University from the 1880s. With strange shapes and forms, the models were made to be scientifically accurate, yet at the same they are simply beautiful, revealing high-level artisanship.

True to Form brings together the best of the University of Sydney’s collection of scientific teaching models. This compelling exhibition features models representing embryos of marine larvae and the development of a frog, a large scale human ear, a sheep, an oversize grain of wheat, extinct animals and crystal models, as well as a rare Auzoux male anatomical figure.

Beautifully crafted from wax, papier-mache, plaster and wood, these models were key teaching aids, alongside study specimens and blackboard charts, adding a visual dimension to what was hitherto a principally text-based learning process.

The market in models is also examined in True to Form. Often from German-speaking countries, model makers worked closely with scientists to give their products veracity and authority.

The objects in True to Form are largely consigned to history today, but they continue to tell us a lot about the evolution of scientific teaching and retain an aesthetic impact that demands attention.