Â© Hillel Burger, President & Fellows of Harvard College
My accidental discovery, ten years ago, of the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants (commonly called “The Glass Flowers”) on the Harvard campus, remains one of the most magical experiences of my life. I was visiting Cambridge with a friend, and while we were poking around Harvard we happened to wander into the Peabody Museum* which, at the time at least, was housed in an unassuming brownstone that gave no hint of the rabbit warren of wonders that lay inside. We wandered around in there the rest of the day, our jaws agape at all the amazing stuff. The original coelacanth specimen caught in 1938 (before which it was thought to have been extinct for 80 million years) is there, floating in a tank of preservative. There was a room full of gorgeous iridescent metallic jewel beetles, arranged taxonomically on the walls, and a solid jade funerary mask recovered from a tomb at Chichen Itza I had visited only the year before. But the Glass Flowers topped everything.
In the late 19th century, when biologists and botanists from Harvard were sailing all over the world taking specimens of every living creature they could find and sending them back home for study, a very serious problem arose in the accurate preservation of those specimens. There was no refrigeration and no practical color photography, and fresh plant and animal specimens rapidly decayed into colorless blobs of mush in jars full of alcohol or formalin. So then-director of the Harvard Botanical Museum George L. Goodale commissioned German father-and-son glass artists Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka to create photorealistic replicas of fresh specimens in solid glass. The Blaschkas would go on to spend the next 50 years creating more than 3,000 such models, which are still on display at Harvard today. It’s a thing not to be missed in your time on this Earth.
*Update: The good folks at the Harvard Museum of Natural History have asked me to emphasize that the “Glass Flowers” are, in fact, under their aegis and not part of the collection at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Either my memory is faulty (which is altogether likely) or there’s some kind of interior connection between the two museums that I missed while I was wandering around with my jaw hanging on the floor. Sorry Harvardians!