Ten Great Science Museums: Harvard University Museums of Cultural and Natural History

By Stephen Jay Gould|Monday, November 01, 1993
Ask a cabbie in Boston to take you to the Harvard University Museums of Cultural and Natural History and not one in a hundred will know where to go. But say you want to visit the Glass Flower Museum and you will be promptly delivered to the right place. This is no insult to my workplace--the glass flowers on display here have gained the great honor of becoming the popular name for the entire institution that houses them.

Our defining exhibit of 847 life-size models of plants in glass represents the full fruit of 50 years’ work by two of history’s greatest artisans, the father-and-son team of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka of Dresden, Germany. The Blaschkas had made accurate models of marine invertebrates for years, and their work was admired and displayed in museums around the world. When George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum, decided to establish a public exhibit, he struggled with the old problem of how plants might be displayed in an attractive and instructive manner. (The real McCoy of dead wood and pressed flowers had never been rendered in an appealing way, and available techniques of modeling in wax or papier-mâché had never produced anything sufficiently accurate or plausible.)

Goodale had seen some of the Blaschka models and realized that he had found a solution--if only he could persuade the Blaschkas to switch kingdoms. He visited Dresden in 1886 for the express purpose of hiring the 64-year-old Leopold and his 29-year-old son to create the centerpiece of his museum. He also persuaded Mrs. Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter Mary Lee Ware to bankroll the enterprise as a memorial to their late husband and father, Charles Eliot Ware.

Goodale succeeded in his mission, though the Blaschkas were at first reluctant to relinquish their profitable trade in modeling invertebrates. They signed on initially for 10 years, but successive extensions kept the agreement in force for 50 years, until Rudolph Blaschka retired in 1936. For half a century, the entire output of the world’s greatest glass modelers of biological specimens went to form one great collection--a first-class unicum, in Leopold Blaschka’s words. German museums continued to importune Rudolph for models, but he stuck firmly to his pledge of exclusivity to Harvard. When Mary Lee Ware visited him for the last time in 1928, Rudolph Blaschka reported his response to a German curator who had begged for some models: I told him that I worked for Harvard University, that I was a man of absolute honor so would make no change and was satisfied.

When such an established family in such a puritanical city bankrolls such an extensive project for such an elite university, certain forms and conceits must be observed. Thus the official rationale for the glass flowers has always stressed their value as teaching aids for students taking courses. (In addition to the 847 full plants, the collection includes about 3,000 small models of enlarged flower parts and anatomical cross sections of floral and vegetative features.) I don’t doubt that students have made some use of the glass flowers over the years, or that the Blaschkas’ accuracy makes their models good surrogates for plants that are difficult to cultivate or simply not in bloom during course times. But I would wager the wealth of the Wares that awe and aesthetics have always provided the primary appeal.

The glass flowers are so perfect, so beautiful. I have walked among them perhaps 500 times in more than 25 years of work at the museum-- and my admiration only increases. They represent a great craft and consummate artistry that once existed as an active presence but will never appear again. (They also reflect the style of divine and sublime obsessive craziness that underlies so much of our species’ most creatively successful work.) Yet, as Wordsworth said of childhood’s passing wonder: We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind. We can still sail our surviving tall ships (and we still use them as training vessels); we can still read Bach’s scores (and probably perform them better than any musical forces that Bach himself was ever able to muster); and we can still admire the Blaschkas’ glass flowers, lovingly preserved as an intact collection, the pride of Cambridge, and a jewel among the world’s museum exhibits. As a kind of ultimate honor for the product over the personalities, the Encyclopaedia Britannica contains no entry for Leopold or Rudolph Blaschka but does include an article on Blaschka glass, stating: Technically and artistically they are among the finest glass objects ever made.

Items of such artistry often inspire myths about their construction. Many people falsely believe that the Blaschkas worked by some secret method based on a unique procedure of their own invention. Yet they insisted, with the pride of artisans, that they worked only with the tried- and-true methods long known to glassmakers (with small inventions and minor improvements here and there). But they worked with unparalleled dedication and ardor, devoting their careers to one goal--perfection in the replication of plants in glass. They never wavered in care, obsession, or commitment. Forget the mythology of arcane discovery and honor the nobility of those who turn the ordinary to sheer magic by never compromising and never resting one iota short of perfection. Leopold Blaschka put the point gently but firmly: Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolph has more than I have because he is my son and tact increases in every generation. The only way to become a glass modeler of skill . . . is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass.

And Mary Lee Ware wrote of Rudolph when she visited him for the last time, noting that, at age 71, he was working more obsessively than ever: I extracted the information that he was not taking enough time for air and exercise and was working late in the evening . . . sometimes till midnight. I remonstrated vigorously and told him he must not do so, but he only said Professor Ames wanted the models and thought him very slow--that it was impossible for him to do such work any faster, that no man could. . . . They were marvelous. . . . How one man can sit hour after hour, putting in the gossamer veinlets, or all the myriad dots . . . passes my understanding; you would say years could not do it, or a lifetime. If he hurried or worked quickly, he would be insane.

The Blaschkas’ technique never varied in basic outline but improved in several substantial ways. The individual pieces (leaves, petals) are shaped and pulled from heated glass, not blown (except for fruits and other globular objects). They used colored glass for some parts (greens, in particular, for the leaves) but produced most of the tones in the early pieces by applying external paint. They made stems by surrounding wires with glass and then attached the leaves and petals by heat. Eventually Rudolph began to make his own glass, so that he could better control colors and textures. He stopped applying external paint, but rather used powdered glasses of all colors, annealing the layer of powder to the underlying part, thus forming a more lasting hue.

The glass flowers, arranged in taxonomic order, are housed in old wooden cabinets, forming three aisles in one room. A large outside vestibule holds two more specialized series of glass insects fertilizing flowers and of rotting fruit, accompanied by enlarged models of their fungal foes. I love the big features--the receptacles of the carnivorous pitcher plants, the wonderful leaves of the red maple in autumnal garb. But I thrill most of all to the loving detail invested in small and repeated parts--the leaves of conifers, the rootlets of grasses, the tendrils of pea plants, each hair on a pussy willow, each bladder on a bladderwort, each tiny petal and tinier stamen or pistil on a wildflower.

A major debate pervades the world of museums. We struggle against the commercialism that threatens to turn these vital institutions into a set of theme parks, with throbbing screens replacing natural objects. Museums must appeal to a wide public, but they must not lose their roots and rationale in displaying nature’s true products. We should not slavishly place rocks, bones, and shells into cabinets, but we must not displace specimens for buttons and lights with immediate pizzazz but no lasting impact (and no inspiration to love nature). What is the proper balance of specimen and artifact, of the natural and the manufactured? The glass flowers are the most beautiful symbol--literally and figuratively--of a properly balanced solution. They are manufactured in silica, in absolute fidelity to nature’s carbon. They represent the most sublime union of natural beauty and human ingenuity, of science and art. The Latin inscription placed at the entrance to the exhibit correctly captures this duality: Sollertiae atque scientiae Leopoldi et Rudolphi Blaschkarum debentur hi flores--These flowers are due to the skill and the knowledge of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.

The glass flowers form the second greatest museum exhibit in America. I must give the nod to the great Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York--for everything blends in a symphony of reinforcement, from the art-deco splendor of the surroundings, to the wonderful lighting of the dioramas in the prevailing darkness of the hall, the skill of the taxidermist, and the art of the painter. The glass flowers, in contrast, must stand by themselves. Their cabinets are quotidian, their surroundings absolutely ordinary. The Akeley mammals are like opera at its best, where all forms of art, from song to plot to staging to dance to lighting, combine to overwhelm our sensations. The glass flowers are like the greatest musical performance I ever heard: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, all alone on the stage of Symphony Hall, singing Schubert’s Schöne Müllerin, with the quadruple pianissimos soaring to the last row in the last balcony, where I sat--one pure song to equal all the thundering of heaven.
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