The Wagner Free Institute of Science will unveil an exhibit of 19th century papier-mâché mushroom models from its collection, never before on public display, during the Philadelphia Science Festival program
"The Magical Mushroom: How a Little Spore Can Save the World"
on Friday, May 2, 2014 from 5:30-8:30 PM.

The exhibit will remain on display through June 2014.

On the second level of the museum gallery, which is used for storage, the Wagner Free Institute of Science has 28 papier-mâché mushroom models stored in a cherry wood cabinet. The detailed, meticulously crafted models are the unmistakable handiwork of 19th century French model maker, Dr. Louis Auzoux. Today, few people know of Dr. Auzoux, but in the mid-to-late 19th century, his name was “synonymous with excellence in natural historical preparations” (Cocks, 2013). Dr. Louis AuzouxHe had started a model making business in the 1820s for the manufacture of anatomical figures for medical teaching. By the end of his life it had turned into an international empire. At the Paris Exposition in 1867 Auzoux’s work was “hailed the most extensive, the most complete, and the most accurate series of anatomical works ever attempted” (Cocks, 2013). 

Although best known for his anatomical models, Dr. Auzoux (left) created a botanical collection in the 1860’s and the final collection included 23 plant species and 24 varieties of mushrooms. The models were developed to teach foragers which mushrooms were poisonous and which were safe to eat. The mushroom and botanical models were larger-than- life and part of a line of models called “Anatomie Clastique,” deriving from the Greek word Klastos, meaning broken into pieces because the models could often be taken apart and opened to show the interior as well as exterior structures (see below).

According to the museum records, Wagner’s collection never included the 23 plant models, but a complete set of 32 papier-mâché mushroom models was accessioned in 1890 when the museum was aggressively expanding its collections. Records show that the models were purchased for 250 francs, which today would be roughly $1,277.00, and one of the models in the Wagner collection is signed “Anatomie Clastique Dr. Auzoux, 1889,” confirming their origin. Based on the surrounding entries in the museum accession book, there is a good chance that the models were purchased from Émile Deyrolle, a 19th century dealer in natural history specimens and taxidermy. The Deyrolle shop, which still exists today at 46 Rue de Bac, has supplied taxidermy and specimens to museums and collectors since the 1830s.

Joseph LeidyFollowing William Wagner’s death in 1885, Joseph Leidy (right), one of the most distinguished scientists of the 19th century, took over as President of the Faculty at the Wagner Free Institute of Science. He quickly transformed the Institute into a “first rate” museum, expanding the collections, coordinating North American expeditions and began publishing the Institute’s findings the “Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science.” In his efforts to create a comprehensive natural history collection, Leidy purchased many specimens, domestically and abroad, between the years of 1885 and 1890--many on a trip to Europe in 1889. The staff lovingly calls this era Joseph Leidy’s “buying spree.”  It is very likely that the mushroom models were purchased or ordered by Joseph Leidy for the Wagner collection on his 1889 trip.

As far as the Wagner staff knows, the models have never before been on public display and the May 2nd opening of the exhibit will share them for the first time. The exhibit will remain on display through the month of June. Regular museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. To learn more about Wagner's Signature Program of the Philadelphia Science Festival, "The Magical Mushroom: How a Little Spore Can Save the World," click here.

To view larger images of mushroom models, visit the Wagner Flickr page.

References: Cocks, M. (2013). Dr Louis Auzoux and his collection of papier-mâché flowers, fruits and seeds (Doctoral dissertation). Available from the Journal of the History of Collections.


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