Published: May 15, 2007
Scientific marvels; drop dead beautiful works of art; a genus onto themselves: these are just a few of the explanations given to describe the allure of a legendary, century-old bevy of glass blossoms and fruits.
From May 18 to November 25, 2007, the Corning Museum of Glass presents the story of the crystalline botanical specimens known as the Glass Flowers of Harvard.
“Botanical Wonders: The Story of the Harvard Glass Flowers” will celebrate glassmakers Leopold Blaschka (1822‱895) and his son Rudolf (1857‱939), and offer close-ups of the people and the craft process behind the glass flowers.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History will lend 17 of its rarely loaned, fragile glass flowers for the occasion, which be amplified by 25 examples of other Blaschka specimens, all sea creatures, drawn from holdings owned by Cornell University and stored and safeguarded by the Corning Museum under a long-term agreement.
The Blaschkas’ botanical drawings, robustly rendered and notated in preparation for glass working, will be exhibited for the first time in “Botanical Wonders.” Purchased jointly by the Corning Museum of Glass and Harvard in 1993 as part of a trove of family materials, the drawings were executed mostly in pencil and watercolor.
“The Blaschkas were two of the greatest glassmakers who have ever lived,” says David Whitehouse, executive director of the Corning Museum and the organizer of “Botanical Wonders,” describing the father and son, who were the last in a line of glassmakers dating back to Fifteenth Century Venice.
Before high-speed moving image media or fiberglass, naturalists and educators found it difficult to demonstrate exactly what an invertebrate looked like without a live specimen, because the spine collapses and color leaches out of one preserved in alcohol.
As Susan Rossi-Wilcox, administrator for the Glass Flowers Collection for the Harvard Museum of Natural History, puts it, “Peacocks can be stuffed and minerals meticulously polished, but plants and invertebrates were more problematic. The Blaschkas’ glass models provided curators with displays where the form and color were realistic.”
“Botanical Wonders” presents a number of the pressed flowers and wax and papier mache models that served as botanical specimens before the creation of the glass flowers, as well as Nineteenth Century scientific artifacts, correspondence and photographs that illustrate the flowers’ role in the rise of the natural history museum.
The Blaschkas had earlier built a profitable business of glass models of invertebrates, known to educational institutions and museums around the world.
This exhibition will present a variety of the latter, glass specimens of soft-bodied animals ranging from sea slugs, jellyfish and octopuses to a blue Portuguese man-o-war “floating” on long, threadlike tentacles.
Photographs and letters illuminate the early days of Harvard’s requisitioning, and shed light on the national market for natural history specimens, including trade catalogs that offered many hundred of varieties of glass specimens for prices as low as $10.60.
For 46 years, everything the Blaschkas made went to Harvard: nearly 850 sets of models, with more than 4,300 enlarged details, were commissioned. Harvard’s glass garden was not to be an idealized one, however. In the late Nineteenth Century, there was mounting interest in a new field called economic botany, the study of how plants can be utilized commercially to benefit society.
If Harvard students were to better understand the diseases that threaten plants, they needed to know what the blighted specimens looked like. Over time, Harvard commissioned roughly 65 models of exact replicas of diseased fruits.
The exhibition features six models illustrating the fungus diseases that attack fruits of the Rosaceae family (peaches, strawberries, apples and pears). One on display is a glistening “Pineapple Pippin” apple branchlet, its fruit mottled, black and knobbed. Another is a strawberry extending from the upper stem of a leafy branch, its life-size rotten fruit covered with just the kind of cottonlike fuzz one associates with decay.
Almost all the glass flowers displayed in “Botanical Wonders” have been newly restored for the occasion by the Corning Museum of Glass in its glass conservation laboratories.
The museum is at 1 Museum Way. For information, 800-732-6845 or www.cmog.org .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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