Alma Mater Tentacles

Glass Sea Creatures Shatter Expectations of Harvard Museum Visitors

by Michelle Hunter


CAMBRIDGE - The spineless sea creatures on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History look as though they were once alive. They don't look like they were hand made, and crafted more than a century ago. Yet for the first time, Harvard is displaying its incredible collection of "Sea Creatures in Glass."

The collection of glass sea creatures by father and son duo, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, were acquired by Harvard University around 1878. Fifty-eight of Harvard's 429 glass sea creature models are on display at the museum's special exhibit, which is on until March 1.

"I never would have guessed that these models were over 100 years old," said Suet Wong, a Northeastern University student visiting the museum.

The intricacy of each jellyfish, amoeba and octopus model demonstrates the preciseness and complexity each one required to be made. But why glass? The glass models were preferred to real specimens, traditionally kept in formaldehyde, because they kept their color and would also never lose their shape - as specimens do when they sink to the bottom of the jars they're kept in, explained Blue Magruder, the museum's director of communications.

With tools that were big and awkward, nothing like modern technology that glass makers use today, the Blaschkas fused and glued glass together and created their own pigments by melting colored stone. They would also use copper wire for certain models for tentacles that were too fine to be made of glass.

"It's exciting that the models are both beautiful, exquisite works of glass art, as well as anatomically precise and scientifically valuable teaching models of marine creatures which can be so difficult to preserve and display," said Elisabeth Werby, the executive director of the museum.

This special exhibit also displays the original work station and tools the Blaschkas used to create these delicate models.

"These are the tools they used. These are tools you would pluck your eyebrows with. It was human skill," said Magruder.

The museum exhibit provides an extensive background on the Blaschka family, who had a long history of glassmaking. The family actually got its start in the business by making glass eyeballs. As the family business succeeded, Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) the fourth generation and father to partner and son Rudolf (1857-1929), decided to create sculptures of living organisms that would document natural history, which was becoming a popular field at that time. The family commissioned invertebrate to museums and educational facilities throughout Europe.

"I can't believe that the museum had these special artifacts hidden away in the back," said Carly Yarbrow, a student at Quinnipiac University.

As museums and private collectors began to buy the Blaschkas' work, which also included replicas of plants and flowers, the glass works caught the attention of a botany professor at Harvard, George Lincoln Goodale. He thought that these may be an excellent way to teach the students about flowers because the glass would not lose its shape or color and would remain three dimensional.

"The Blaschkas made over 4,000 plant models for Harvard University," said Magruder. "It took them over 10 years to get some of the colors to be exactly of the real specimen's."

The plant exhibit has been permanently on at Harvard since 1893 and people have come from all over the world to see it.

As for the sea creatures, they are not permanently on display and will go back in to storage with the rest of the collection in March. However, works for a smaller, permanent installation of the sea creatures are being discussed, said Werby.

From the boring-sounding Journalism Students' Online News Service