Glass Menagerie

No that’s not real and neither are the others in the post!
Argonauta Argo, National Museum& Gallery, Cardiff

Spending time at the Museum Comparative Zoology at Harvard (MCZ), a Museum of a Museum, I realize the potential for items to get lost in unvisited cabinets. This happens regularly in my own brainoffice. Eureka!
Paula Holahan, a curator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Zoological Museum, noting a series of keyholes under the exhibit cases decided to explore. After excavating the keys, she was quite surprised to find several boxes of glass sculptures of marine invertebrates with incredible detail. Recognizing the label Ward’s on some of the items, she was able to track down the meaning of another small tag on the sculptures-Blaschka. To some of you this name may be familiar especially if you have visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The Blaschka’s, Leopold and Rudolph, also created the Glass Flowers Exhibit, a fantastic and highly realistic collection of glass sculptures.

21_5.jpgThe two were a father and son team of German glassmakers, a profession with deep familial roots. Both started with glass eyes and jewelry before the early-1800’s and then quickly moved to the natural world.

Leopold began (out of boredom with eyes?) making glass models of exotic flowers from natural history books. A local aristocrat heard of his work and commissioned 100 glass models of his orchid collection. This hobby finally turned to business when the Dresden Natural History Museum decided realistic models were preferable to pickled creatures in glass jars. With the commissioned dozen glass replica sea-anemones for Dresden, Leopold’s fame rose. By the late 1800’s,George Lincoln Goodale, a Harvard Botany professor and founder of the Botanical Museum, was set on obtaining life-like models of plants and the crude, traditional papier-mache or wax models common of the day were unacceptable. A donation by the widow of an alumnus made it possible for the MCZ to acquire 847 species of model plants.

“These were highly in demand. The living animals were often so minuscule and delicate, [models were] an ideal way to demonstrate what they looked like,” says Holahan.

The demand for the models became so great, the father-son team developed a catalog of individually hand-made models of a range of animals. As for the UW specimens, they were originally purchase by Edward A. Birge – former UW-Madison president, dean, and zoology professor and one of the first curators of the UW Zoological Museum. After a fire destroyed many of the science collections in 1884, Birge ordered a selection of Blaschka-made sea life from Ward’s Natural Science catalog, recorded in his purchasing ledger simply as “glass models,” for a total sum of $185 (~ $4,000 today).

The bad news…

Now showing their age, the models must be cleaned and repaired before they can be publicly displayed. Restoring the collection will not be a simple task. The fragility of the figurines and deterioration of the handcrafted glass and glues will make the undertaking much like restoring artwork.The gradual deterioration of Blaschka models reflects the instability of the materials they contain, says Stephen Koob, a conservator at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, who has repaired Blaschka models owned by Cornell University. For example, Leopold Blaschka relied heavily on animal-based adhesives to connect parts of the models and adhere pigments. Such adhesives are “not very effective in the long term,” he says. “These adhesives are nearing the end of their lifetimes.” Moreover, the Blaschkas’ proprietary glass and adhesive recipes died with Rudolf in 1939, leaving proper repair and conservation procedures unclear. The wrong approach, no matter how well intentioned, could be catastrophic, Holahan says.

4 Replies to “Glass Menagerie”

  1. The Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, 3,000 models created between 1886 and 1936 by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, known at the ‘Glass Flowers’ are on permanent display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The ‘Glass Flowers’ are not MCZ, but rather Harvard’s Botanical Museum. The Museum of Comparative Zoology holds the research collections in zoology/paleontology — but all the public galleries of the MCZ, Herberia, and Mineralogical Museum are now incorporated into the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the University’s most visited museum, just a 6 minute walk from Harvard Square in Cambridge. More at

  2. Perhaps the original post was not as clear as possible. But as Blue mentions the glass flowers are not with the MCZ but with the Botanical Museum adjacent and just through double doors from the MCZ. Thanks for the additional information for readers.

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