CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The historic collection of Glass Flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History recently reopened after its first comprehensive renovation. It’s easy to walk through the eternal garden of botanicals from around the world without noticing anything remarkable, as the flowers, cacti, tree branches, and other specimens are so lifelike. Yet each is made entirely of glass, and decades of damage due to soot from the building’s former coal heating, degradation of glue, ultraviolet light, sonic booms, and wayward visitors getting too close left the delicate works in need of conservation and a revamped home.
“The Glass Flowers gallery really hadn’t been changed since the 1920s,” Jenny Brown, collection manager for the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants at Harvard, told Hyperallergic. “There had been some smaller projects to make some improvements to the space over time, but really the exhibit had never undergone a very extensive update.”
All of the 4,200 flora models were crafted between 1887 and 1936 by the Dresden, Germany–based father-and-son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, who had made their name with intricate marine invertebrate models, also in glass. An exhibition of their beautifully rendered jellyfish, octopi, anemones, and other creatures is currently on view at the Corning Museum of Glass. Harvard also displays Blaschka marine invertebrate models in its Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Harvard’s Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, named for Elizabeth C. and Mary Lee Ware, who financially supported its creation, debuted in own its gallery back in 1893. At the time, botanical models were made of papier-maché or wax and lacked the translucent qualities of living plants. To rectify this, George Lincoln Goodale, a Harvard professor and the first director of the school’s Botanical Museum, commissioned the Blaschkas to make the glass models in 1886.
The flowers are considered the Blaschkas’ masterpiece, nicknamed the “Sistine Chapel of Glass” for their excellence. In her 1924 poem “Silence,” Marianne More cited her father, who would say: “Superior people never make long visits, / have to be shown Longfellow’s grave / or the glass flowers at Harvard.” Longfellow’s grave may not be quite as prestigious these days, but the flowers are perhaps more popular than ever. On a recent weekend visit, viewers lined nearly each case, peering through the glass at the leaves and petals, some rendered with realistic decay.
The cases are original, but have been refurbished with less reflective glass. Overall, the Victorian aesthetic of the old gallery — which was arranged a bit like a tactile herbarium — has been preserved, only now with better lighting, brighter walls, and less dust. The revamped cases are also more accessible so that the displays can be rotated. Pollinators are featured in the inaugural installation, and there are plans for the “rotten fruit” studies of plant disease to go on view in the future. The gallery’s new design also considers how the study of botany has changed over the decades, as well as how to present that knowledge to visitors.
“In the old exhibit, the order was arranged according to the Engler classification system, which was a plant classification system widely in use in the early 1900s. Now we updated the arrangements to reflect the Angiosperm Group, a more contemporary plant system,” Brown explained. “The old exhibit also only had panels about the Blaschkas and the construction of the collection. A lot of the botany was sort of lost — it wasn’t being discussed or highlighted. So with the exhibit renovation, we wanted to incorporate the botany, too.”
A wooden workbench used by the Blaschkas sits at the center of the gallery, showing flameworking tools similar to those they would have used to bend clear and colored glass into these facsimiles of nature. Nearby are spiny leaves of the Mexican poppy, bending stems and white flowers of bloodroot, slender blooms of the Pacific bleeding heart, elaborate petals of orchids, and bright yellow flowers of the narrowleaf evening primrose. According to a 1939 Life magazine article, the Blaschkas’ glass rhododendron was “so similar to the living rhododendron” that, when a leaf once snapped off the model, it “broke in exactly the same fashion and along the same veins as would a leaf on the actual plant.”
“We think of glass as shiny, smooth, and if one looks at the models, the leaves are wonderfully realistic, the colors are vivid and accurate,” says Donald Pfister, professor of systematic botany at Harvard, in the video on the renovation below. “The maple, for example, it’s like being out in the forest in the fall.” Along with footage of the case restoration and reinstallation, you can see a demonstration of the same lampworking techniques used by the Blaschkas. They had no special secrets except their incredible skill at bending, pulling, and blowing glass into immortal lilies, roses, pines, and poppies.
The Glass Flowers are on view at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts).