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What a Glass Menagerie in Harvard Tells Us About the Art of Science

What a Glass Menagerie in Harvard Tells Us About the Art of Science

Source: Suvasini Ramaswamy

Beyond offering insights into the history of science and perspectives on model-making, the legacy of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka also reveals a delicate and often invisible link between artists and scientists

Source: Suvasini Ramaswamy
Source: Suvasini Ramaswamy

In the middle of Harvard’s bustling campus lies a time capsule – a glass menagerie from a bygone era.

It is housed in Victorian cabinets proudly displaying nearly 4,300 three-dimensional botanical specimens, representing some 840 species of plants from 170 different families. In addition to their evergreen and brilliantly natural hues, they are also pristinely delicate and over a century old. They are in fact historical relics; from a time when scientific study of the natural world was plagued by the limitations of time and resources, and when, unlike today, problems of distance, transport, storage and preservation were not trivial matters. Their tale is one of wonder that is shaped by the primal human obsession to collect and create, and the narrative begins in Renaissance Europe. 

When Europe woke up in the 16th century after the dark ages, status-conscious royals, nobles, physicians and apothecaries – anyone who could afford to – began assembling eclectic objects. Wunderkammern, or ‘cabinets of curiosity’ as they were called, are the ancestors of our modern day museums. They expressed the beautiful, the monstrous, and the exotic: preserved flora and fauna, scientific instruments, objects of art and genetic mutations. They began as odes to idiosyncrasy but soon transformed into precursors of a scientific quest that continues till today. One of the earliest steps in this transformation was the development of a universal classification system in 1753 by Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). A Swedish botanist, Linnaeus believed that “the first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves” and thus devised a simple, beautiful and instructive way to classify all living things using two word names in Latin – first identifying the genus, and the second, the species. His work was carried forward by biologists such as Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) and Lamarck (1744-1829) who then led the way for scientific treatises like Pierre Joseph Redoute’s Les Liliacees and James Audubon’s Birds of America that were scientific masterpieces of draftsmanship and printing, with detailed sketches and accurate anatomical drawings.

Linnaeus and the Enlightenment era also paved the way for proper scientific collecting as naturalists began to prepare their specimens with greater care. But early preservation techniques were crude and did more harm than good as insects were pickled in spirits, snakes were crammed with straw, shells were boiled and shipped in sawdust. Naturalists were thus reduced to studying animals from illustrations and textbooks that were painstakingly made to try and recapitulate nature’s three-dimensional wonders on flat two-dimensional plates that gave no indication of size or scale and were open to misinterpretation. 

Around the same time, England was also caught in the throes of another craze as Philip Henry Gosse, a self-taught naturalist, popularised the notion of keeping sea creatures in oxygenated saltwater aquariums. The British craze for aquariums began from the idea of Wunderkammern but was fuelled by the availability of inexpensive glass plates and the discovery that seaweed could be used to oxygenate water in the aquariums. At this time, the generally successful method of transporting live specimens of sea anemones and molluscs over long distances involved wrapping them in wet seaweed, placing them in glass jars and packing the jars in baskets. With these and other improvements, the Zoological Society of London established the first large public aquarium in 1853. Around the same time, in keeping with the spirit of exploration, the British Admiralty and the Royal Society initiated the Challenger expedition – a massive feat of oceanographic exploration where oceanographers mapped the seabed and ocean currents and biologists collected thousands of species of marine life. The findings of this expedition were studied by prominent researchers like Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and were published as a compendium in 50 volumes.

Thus, a quest for the ‘weird’ that began as a private luxury in the homes of the affluent, soon transformed into a public fascination as museums began opening their doors to the public in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Subsequent to the Louvre in 1793 and the Prado in Madrid in 1809, public museums began mushrooming all over Europe and North America. In this climate of scientific wonder and renaissance began the story of Harvard’s glass menagerie and its two creators – the father-son Blaschka duo.

The story of the Blaschkas begins in the small town of Bohmisch Aicha (now in the Czech Republic) where Leopold Blaschka (the father) continued his family’s tradition of flame working. Despite a strong interest in natural history and art, Leopold entered the family business of making costume jewelry and other fancy goods with metal and flame worked glass. His quaint world was however shattered by two devastating losses when his first wife died of cholera in 1850, followed by his father a couple of years later. Devastated, young Leopold took time off to visit the United States. On his maiden voyage though, the ship was becalmed for two weeks near the Azores and young Leopold passed his time collecting and illustrating jellyfish and other marine invertebrates. Their glasslike transparency fascinated this flame worker and this sense of wonder transformed his life; upon his return to Europe, he began making glass models of plants for his own amusement.  Leopold’s journey with glass had begun with making costume jewellery, chandeliers and other fancy goods but gradually expanded into jewellery decorated with flame worked flowers, flame worked glass eyes and laboratory equipment.

These models came to the attention of Prince Camille de Rohan, an aristocratic horticulturist who had established a world-famous garden on one of his estates near Aicha. Through Blaschka, the prince exhibited nearly 100 models of orchids and other exotic plants between 1860 and 1862 – all in glass. 

Blaschka’s work with the prince opened new avenues and led him onto a new vocation – the art of making scientific models. The Blaschka’s models varied greatly in complexity and in their method of construction. Component parts were formed from both clear and coloured glass using a combination of lamp-working and glassblowing. The parts were then either fused together or assembled with adhesives, probably hide glue. Where necessary, other materials were used in the construction: fine copper wires were added to reinforce delicate tentacles and gills and painted paper was cleverly incorporated to represent internal structures. Surfaces were painted with colours mixed with gum or glue.

Impressed with Leopold’s craftsmanship, the prince introduced Leopold to Ludwig Reichenbach, director of the natural history museum in Dresden, resulting in regular exhibitions of Leopold’s glass models. Reichenbach then commissioned Leopold to make models of sea anemones and other marine invertebrates to be displayed at the natural history museum and this further attracted the attention of other museum directors.

By the age of 40, Leopold was a successful model maker who used several design sources beginning with the printed page from the works of Gosse. His illustrations provided Leopold with images of sea anemones and also suggested that the models could be displayed on natural, rock-like surfaces. Gosse’s plates however gave no sense of scale or dimension that an accurate three-dimensional model needs and this set Leopold on the lookout for other sources. Around this time, Leopold’s son Rudolf joined the business and brought fresh zeal and enterprise to this ambitious venture.

Over the years, the Blaschka duo worked from books and other publications in addition to relying on animals preserved in alcohol. Soon, the Blaschkas began to maintain living specimens in seawater aquariums of the kind promoted by Gosse and could successfully maintain anemones for ‘years’. They acquired live specimens from Naples, from the upper Adriatic, from the English Channel and from suppliers on the coasts of the North and Baltic seas. Leopold further expanded these sources by venturing on expeditions to document new species.

Source: Suvasini Ramaswamy
Source: Suvasini Ramaswamy

The Blaschka’s glass models were well timed with the aquarium craze that swept through England and they made it possible to stock waterless aquariums with sea anemones and other invertebrates that required little or no maintenance, and needed no restocking due to death. The glass models also retained their shape and colour. The Blashckas’ archive of drawings and sketches from textbooks further ensured that these models were accurate.

The Blaschkas’ skill in producing minutely detailed replicas was further supported by the socio-political climes of the era that had been transformed since the French Revolution. The development of science and the expansion of universities provided greater opportunities for their models. The Blashckas succeeded because their models solved a problem that confronted all natural history museums: While the vertebrates could be displayed relatively easily by stuffing and mounting, the taxidermists could not work their magic on the invertebrates (jellyfish, squids and so forth).

As opposed to the limited scope of the existing method of using alcohol, the glass sculptures provided museum curators with displays of permanent form and feature. The proliferation of museums and the resultant emergence of suppliers to these museums expanded the Blaschkas’ business. They soon had a presence in India, New Zealand, Tokyo, most of Europe, Australia and multiple places in the United States. The father-son duo managed to maintain a prodigious output through the years as they made thousands of models. 

Source: Suvasini Ramaswamy
Source: Suvasini Ramaswamy

In 1886, George Lincoln Goodale, a professor of Botany at Harvard wanted to represent the full glory of the plant kingdom in the natural history museums that were being developed at the university. The display was also aimed to supplement the botanical courses as many plant beds and greenhouses were subject to the inhospitable New England winters. Goodale was on the lookout for something aesthetically pleasing and scientifically accurate since presenting plants as attractive displays was tougher. Traditional botanical teaching aids included models fashioned from wax-covered silk or papier mâché in addition to fresh fruits and flowers. Although dried, pressed herbarium specimens were also frequently used to supplement these options, these had limited appeal and utility.

Impressed by the glass zoological models at the museum, Goodale desired something similar for his plants to point out their morphological features during lectures. He then traveled to Dresden where the Blaschkas lived and persuaded them to accept a small commission for a few plant models. This in some sense brought Leopold’s journey a full circle and the result was a unique collection of botanical models that one can see even today in Harvard (and in other museums across the world). These became known as the “glass flowers of Harvard” and while the invertebrate models are spectacular, the botanical models are simply breathtaking for their sheer diversity and accuracy. This collection represents the diversity of flora, with an emphasis on economically important plants. The models were largely based on plants that the Blaschkas cultivated on their property from various sources. By the mid-1890s, the Blaschkas had made models of several hundred species to represent the major plant families and had exhausted their European sources. 

Rudolf Blaschka's detailed notes. Source:
Rudolf Blaschka’s detailed notes. Source:

At this point, armed with colour pencils and drawing paper, Rudolf began his voyage to America early in 1892 and began a diligent study of the flowering plants in the Harvard botanic garden. He also completed an expedition to Jamaica and traveled the vast North American continent extensively sampling the terrain and its flora. In these voyages he made extensive drawings for himself and his father. Rudolf drew the plants in their natural settings and also dissected them in order to highlight their various parts, either life size or magnified. He made detailed illustrations to provide reference information on colour, and dimensionality that would be lost from the herbarium specimens as the plants were pressed and dried. He also included 360º views of the flowers and their internal structures. He drew cutaway views to record the size ratios and the placement of each part of the plant. His notes also provided critical information about the plants such as the number denoting the colour (to try and correlate with the pigments used by his father to paint the parts of the coloured glass models). He also gave descriptors for textures, sheen, opacity etc. in addition to designations for twists, furrows, creases, and other textural details.

Although the surviving archive of specimen, drawings and labels is incomplete, Rudolf probably documented upwards of 350 species, and created more than 250 sets of models based on this season alone. The work proved so valuable that he returned for a second season in three years, at which time, Leopold died leaving Rudolf with the arduous task of finishing the work. Despite the lack of any formal training, Rudolf was as thorough and meticulous as any scientist of the day as he recorded the unique or relevant features of a genus or a species, in addition to the physical characteristics. From 1896 to 1936, when the last shipments of the models were received, he added more than 200 species, including several series on grasses, insect pollination, progression of fruit blight etc. Rudolf continued his work through his final years and despite his failing health, his devotion and fascination to these models remained unaffected. Unfinished models remained on his desk when he died on May 1, 1939. 

Rudolf writes in a letter to an American colleague, “I think I belong to that same order of men as you, to the true lovers of nature. On every walk I take, there must be something to study of nature, it may be a plant or insect or bird or whatever. I think a man can never finish these studies and is never too old to learn from nature…

This glass menagerie has its origins in Europe but continues to fascinate museum-goers all over the world today. It is a legacy of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka and while it does offer insights into the history of science and the perspectives on model-making itself, it also reveals a delicate and often invisible link between artists and scientists – like the very glass it is made of.

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