Friday, January 22, 2010

In the Wax Museum

When I was a little girl, no trip to the Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York would be complete without a walk-by of the portrait of my grandfather hanging with other past directors of the Station, and a visit to the wax model collection. I remember climbing the big stairs to the 2nd floor of Jordan Hall, and getting up on tippy-toes to peer at the life-like fruits and vegetables in the high wood and glass display cases.

Inside was a veritable museum in wax: apples, pears, grapes, peas, beans, and more.

Most looked good enough to eat, except for some strangely deformed specimens. (I would later learn that these represented plants in various stages of insect infestation and fungal disease).

Over the years the stairs got easier to climb, and I made fewer visits. When I did, the collection was beginning to look a little tired. And then it was gone! Deemed old-fashioned, and the space needed for other purposes, the pieces were packed away.

So, two summers ago, when I was asked by the Station Librarian if I wanted to work with the collection, it was like meeting an old friend. And this is how some would say I spent my summer vacation!

In the days before photography, and particularly color photography, wax models were an important teaching tool. They were employed in horticulture and botany classes, and often displayed in libraries, museums and research institutions. These models provided the students of the day with realistic facsimiles of plants, which might be rare, not available locally, or out of season.

James S. Lawson was the chief Preparator of the Geneva Collection. Lawson was born in Ontario, Canada in 1890. As a young man, he had the opportunity to meet, and later work with Mrs. Stanley Potter (Sarah), the resident wax artist at the Ontario Agricultural College. He worked at the Station in Geneva during summers, from 1920 to 1935. Another artist, Clara Barnes, carried on the wax model work at the Station from 1936 to 1942, also on a part time basis. Together these artists created close to 500 wax models of fruit, vegetables and fungi.

The fascinating thing about these wax models is their realism, particularly in color and texture. You might even be tempted to take a bite.

It is reported that Lawson would go to great lengths to achieve this realism. He actually cut pieces of hair from his arms to create fine bristles on raspberry models,

Little is known about how the Geneva specimens were made; but there is documentation on how Sarah Potter worked. And, if indeed Lawson was her student, it would follow that he would employ similar methods. Two representative examples of each fruit or vegetable would be chosen. One would be used to make a plaster mold. The second example was used for coloring guidance. The finished pieces in the Geneva Collection are for the most part mounted with wire on heavy cardstock mounts. The variety, and sometimes further notes, are given in a legend beneath the specimen in letterpress or a stamped format. We know that Lawson learned other skills such as soldering, tin-smithing and printing in order to further enhance his works.

During my time working with the Collection, I kept busy preparing an inventory, organizing storage, conducting some minor conservation, and compiling various finding aids.

Piecing together the story of the Station’s Collection, as well as defining its place in the history of wax model-making, has been fascinating; and is an ongoing project. Wax has been used by artists as a medium for botanical modeling as far back as 15th century Europe. The 19th century found the art of wax modeling introduced as a home recreation for ladies. This was also the time of famous modelers such as the Mintorn Family of England, who fashioned a large scale wax model of the 'Victoria Regia' for Kew Gardens. Even at the World’s Fairs and international agricultural exhibitions it was a common practice to include wax fruit specimens as part of the displays.

What began as a “Tale Of Two Collections” (Geneva and Ontario) is today so much more! My research has uncovered other like collections worldwide: in Buffalo, in Chicago, in Florence and in Sydney, to name just a few. Ironically for me, one of the largest collections is at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia where I resided for 6 years.

These Collections are treasures. They are important not only for their uniqueness and artistic merit, but for their relevance to the current interest in heritage plants, biodiversity, climate change and food security. One can only imagine what other wonderful undiscovered collections are packed away in the museums of the world.

Waxing Poetic,

(Photos courtesy of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station)


  1. wow, just loved all the information here. And the photo's of course ! Brilliant

  2. Marjorie, this was an eloquent and interesting post! Your grandfather was once a director of the program? I can't believe the quality and realism of the wax models! THOSE favorite fruit of all time, are jumping out to me! What a treasure indeed. Thank you for coming to visit with me; those images of food from Sacha's table are killer diller on the will-power, n'est-ce pas? But oh how lovely to dream... take care dearest and have a lovely weekend. Anita

  3. I had no idea about how realistic wax modelling could be - thanks for this interesting post!

  4. What a great post. I've never been inclined to visit a museum of wax human figures, but this is another matter altogether--I'd definitely like seeing this collection!

  5. This is just THE coolest thing!!!
    I have a seriously weird fake food fetish, you would not BELIEVE how many fake food magnets I have on my fridge right now. Heck, I even have a Tiffany plate with fake porcelain olives on it! This looks like my sorta place, thank you so much for sharing it!

    Have a blessed Sunday!

  6. HI Marjorie
    What an interesting post. Isn't it funny how something we may overlook can really have such an incredible background.. ie as a teaching tool.. I wouldn't have thought of that..

    Well you will be missing Australia Day coming up.. although in recent years it has the tendency to get out of hand.. Have a great week .. Julie

  7. What an interesting post, Marjorie. I was going to ask if there were many other collections, around the world, but you answered it. I guess that it was obvious, when you think about it, that these collections would exist, as people did need to learn about them, and that was the only way before photography. XXXX

  8. The fruit and vegis look incredibly real. I have never heard of botanical modeling with wax before, it's an art form!

  9. Perfectly delicious blog you have here...a delight to find you!

  10. Insane! What a magical museum. Thanks so much for posting about it!

  11. I can't believe all of that is wax! Loved this post - so interesting!

  12. This is a fascinating post, Marjorie! How amazing that they have survived so well-preserved all these years, and how wonderful that you have been an integral part of bringing them back out to the light of day. I love that you have discovered these other collections around the world as well. I think they must be tremendously helpful to researchers seeking to learn more about heritage varieties. And, of course, they are absolutely beautiful.

    Thanks so much for sharing this! xo Gigi

  13. Interesting! I have NEVER seen waxed fruit in a museum!

  14. Marjorie ma belle, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warm congrats! HOW WONDERFUL OF YOU! Merci mille fois!!! Anita

  15. i thought they were botanicals..but they were wax! i've never seen that..wonderful......

    thanks for visiting, marjorie.....

    have a wonderful weekend.....

    more later, my friend

  16. Fascinating. I so enjoyed this tour and learning someone was exacting enough to (reportedly) take hairs from his arm to make raspberries look so real. Yes, the fruit did look good enough to bite into!