The NHM Vienna, like other natural history museums, produces detailed scientific models aimed at depicting three-dimensional objects in the most realistic way possible, though in some cases the models are larger or smaller than in real life. The NHM Vienna‘s strong commitment to showing original objects means that modelling is particularly used to create larger-than-life educational tools for items where the original object is simply too small for visitors to appreciate the complexity or function of its structures. However, models are also used in situations where the object would, in fact, be large enough but is simply too difficult to preserve in its original form. This is often the case with jellyfish and mollusks such as snails, mussels and squids. Consequently, model-makers face many different challenges in their work.

Before embarking on the actual modelling process, expert model-makers examine photos, microscopic images, taxidermy exhibits and the living object itself. Today most models are made from artificial materials, including a range of modelling compounds, PU foams, artificial resin laminates, etc. However, creative model-makers could and would use almost any material – glass, wood or metals – in order to achieve a lifelike appearance. Model-makers see everyday things with different eyes and are always on the lookout for new materials in order to make their creations appear even more realistic.

Terrorvogel Portrait
Terrorvogel Portrait

Like taxidermists, model-makers combine biological expertise with artistic and technical skills. It often takes months to complete a model. Each is unique and therefore highly valuable.

The path to producing a lifelike model ready for display is often a long and winding one full of by false-starts and technical headaches, so experience is essential. Molds can be made from plants to create the basic structure for a realistic model. However, while this approach can be used for the leaves of the purple dwarf iris, it cannot be used for its petals – these stick to the silicone used for the mold and cannot be separated. Yet, at the same time, “copying” the highly complex leaves of the stinging nettle with their many fine hairs poses no technical problems.

Reconstructing extinct species is a particular challenge for model-makers. There are no images of these animals, so the only way to observe them is by watching related species still alive today. A good example is the terror bird (Paraphysornis brasiliensis), a carnivorous flightless bird species measuring around two meters in height, which died out over 20 million years ago. In close cooperation with paleontologists from the NHM, a mold of a fossilized skull and a more or less complete skeleton found in Brazil in the 1980s were used together with photos to produce a metal skeleton.

This was then covered in PU foam, which was shaped into the body form of a terror bird once it had dried. Bird skins from turkeys and ostriches bred in captivity were then stretched over this foam body and individual details such as feathers were attached. The color of the hand-painted glass eyes was based on those of the seriemas, a bird species today found in central and eastern parts of South America and believed to be the closest relative to the terror bird.

Every project – from reconstructing extinct species to creating models for educational purposes and designing dioramas – pose new challenges to model-makers, making it a job full of exciting new experiences.