Spotlight on Harvard's Glass Flowers

By Paulette Beete
close-up of glass model of aster flowers at Harvard Museum of Natural History
This glass model of an aster is impossible to distinguish from a stem just picked from your summer garden. Stems were often glass coated wire, to give the model the strength to support the weight of the leaves and blossoms. Even the backs of the leaves were made accurate to life. Photo courtesy of Harvard Museum of Natural History
We may have passed the first official day of fall, but at the Harvard Museum of Natural History everything’s still very much abloom thanks to the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants. The Glass Flowers, as they’re most often called, are scientifically accurate botanical specimens crafted by a father-and-son team of master glass artists starting in the late 1800s. For more than a century, the models have inspired new generation of botanists, artists, gardeners, and art lovers. Recently, the museum undertook a conservation project on the collection, which also enabled them to rethink how they displayed the glass plants. Re-opened to the public this past May, the Blaschka’s glass flora is as vibrant as ever, ready to delight and inspire whole new generations. We spoke with Donald Pfister, Curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium, to learn more about this extraordinary collection. NEA: What’s the origin of the Glass Flowers collection? DONALD PFISTER: It began with the director of the Botanical Museum, Lincoln Goodale [who] realized that he wanted to present plants for the public in a medium that was really respectful and was appropriate for looking at plants. As I understand it, at the time, a lot of the models were made out of papier-maché or plaster, none of which gave the quality that he wanted. He came across [Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka] who were working in Dresden in Germany, and decided that they would be appropriate to work on his idea of modeling plants. They had previously been doing models of invertebrates and invertebrate animals, and those were done as a commercial venture. They did multiple sets of these in museums and teaching facilities and so forth…. Goodale, as he was looking and working with Leopold Blaschka, the father of the team, realized that he had also made some orchid models and that gave him the idea of commissioning the Blaschkas to make the [plant] models. The Blaschkas—father and son—were exclusively contracted to make the flowers for Harvard. The models began arriving in the 1880s and those were made by father and son. After Leopold died, Rudolf continued [making the flowers] until the 1930s. NEA: Were they originally intended to be on display for the public? Or were they meant to be for classroom use? PFISTER: They became the centerpiece for the public exhibit [in the Botanical Museum], but they were also used, and continue to be used, in classes. So they were used for both teaching about botany as well as looking at them as objects of art and craft. If you’ve seen photographs of them, you know the [models] concentrate on the whole plant. You see flowers and leaves and you see them arranged in branches… so you get a very good impression of the plant from these whole plant models. At the same time, they made dissections and other models, so you can go and find in some of [the models] a stamen or there are pollen grains that they have made. In many of the dissections, you can see both longitudinal and cross-sections of the reproductive parts of the flower. Those are very powerful in terms of the ability to use them in teaching. NEA: Why do you think that this collection is still so important? PFISTER: There are different threads that make it important. In the new exhibit that opened at the end of May, we’ve rearranged the plants according to modern classification. What this means in an educational venture is that people can go in and they can learn about this current classification, and that in itself is, I think, an important thing…. There are a few places in the world where you can go and through the greenhouse and see the [different members of a] plant family lined up, and you could study them in that way, but even in the greenhouse, not all of the plants are in flower at the same time. What you’re seeing here is the classification of the flowering plants, you’re seeing the characters that are used in the classification through the models, and you’re seeing them all in what we might think of as perfect flowering state. So you get an overview that’s very difficult to achieve in any other way. The other thread is… thinking about the models as objects of art and craft. From that standpoint, I think many people look at them and think, “I just can’t believe they’re glass.” Then it’s, “How did they do that, and what is the craftsmanship? Where is it that the artists here have tricked the eye with color or texture to make you think that indeed they are plants?”
Brightly lit flat museum display cases displaying glass models of flowers
The renovated Blaschka gallery at the Harvard Museum of Natural History displays some 2,000 of the 4,300 models crafted by the father-son glass artisans between 1886 and 1936. The original glass cases were rebuilt with interior lighting and new, extraordinarily white, flat glass so the flowers' colors seem so much brighter than before. Photo courtesy of Harvard Museum of Natural History
NEA: Can you talk about the techniques the Blaschkas would have used to create the models? PFISTER: It’s what they call lamp work. They essentially had a paraffin burner so they’re burning oil to heat up the glass, and then, with some fairly simple tools, they’re manipulating the glass into the shapes that they want. Depending on the type of glass, it melts at different temperatures; it has different qualities and they would use this characteristic to make different structures. In some cases, they would layer the glass. They would use different colors of glass to create the appearance of the plant and to get the proper colors. In other cases, they would paint the models. They would use wire armatures to fit the models together… and they’d attach the leaves and they’d develop the stems and so forth. It was all done with a pretty simple kind of work bench. We have the work bench on exhibit and some of the tools. I think one of the amazing things is that there are artists today who are working with glass and making flower models, but they’re often blowing the glass and using very high temperatures and other techniques. But for the Blaschkas it was almost desktop manufacture of these models; it was a fairly simple technique. Because of the different materials that were used by the Blaschkas and the different qualities of these glasses that were used, some of the models deteriorate. So we did some conservation before the models were put back on exhibit. We will continue the work on the conservation to address some of these structural issues that were introduced at creation of the models. NEA: Can you say more about the type of conservation work you’re doing? PFISTER: A lot of it is looking at [the models] and doing repairs. Over the years there may have been a crack that developed in a leaf, and so part of what’s happening now is that that crack will be repaired. Many of these models are more than 100 years old; the earliest of them, at least. So they’re being cleaned and some of them are being remounted. It depends almost model to model what needs to be done. It could be reattaching a leaf; it could be repairing the leaf or a petal. But all of them are being cleaned and examined very carefully at this point. NEA: You said that one of the changes in the new exhibit is that the models are classified according to modern conventions. Are there other changes that people might notice if they have visited the exhibit before? PFISTER: We’ve rebuilt the historic cases. They’re re-glazed, the opening mechanisms have been redone, and they’ve been lowered so that they’re ADA- compliant, so that people in wheelchairs will be able to look at them in a way that they haven’t before. We’ve also redone the lighting so I think it will be quite a different scene for people than what they remember. What we’re putting out now is a selection of models; it’s not the complete collection. We have the possibility within that gallery now to have rotating exhibits, which we never had the option to do before. The first rotation in those exhibits will be a set of models of plant pollination, primarily insect pollination. There’s also a series of models that haven’t been on exhibit for quite a long time, perhaps 15 years, that we are bringing back, and using as part of the museum education aspect, showing people how it is that flower structure is involved with the attraction and the kind of plant architecture that allows pollination to take place effectively.
glass model of orchid with a bee at its center
Changing exhibitions are planned, and the first is of the Blaschkas' pollinator models, such as this one showing an orchid and a bee. Other pollinator models show plants with totally different strategies, such as carnivorous plants, and serves as teaching models for students well before the invention of color photography. Photo courtesy Harvard Museum of Natural History
NEA: How did the Blaschkas obtain the the original plants so that they could make the models? I imagine some of the plants they modeled, like bananas, were still quite exotic at that time. PFISTER: Yes, absolutely. They did a couple things. Later on, at least, Goodale would send them the seeds and they’d grow things in their garden in Germany. In some cases, they would use greenhouse plants, and they had access to some of what you would call estate greenhouses and state greenhouses in Germany…. Rudolf also made trips to the U.S., and he collected and drew and saved specimens from those collections. He was in Jamaica, and a number of models were based on plants that he saw there….They were real artists, and Rudolf, in particular, drew and illustrated the plants, and worked out structural diagrams that he would use later on to build the models. It was a variety of sources, but almost always, I think, they saw living materials. NEA: You have talked about the collection as a source of inspiration. Do you know of any specific art projects or scientific projects that are directly inspired by the Glass Flowers? PFISTER: There’s an artist, Debora Moore, who did this project Glass Orchidarium. She has modeled many orchids in glass, and in one of her exhibit booklets she says that she saw the Glass Flowers in the 90s, I think. She is taking off from the modeling in glass that the Blaschkas did, and she’s introduced a fantasy of combinations of both habitats and colors in her work. They’re quite striking, and quite wonderful. There’s Jenny Yurshansky and she’s been interested in California plants. She did a reconstruction and modeled one of our cases… but she has depressions where the plants might have been. This creation that tells you something about the existence and the extinction of these plants, and so hers is a very interesting conceptual kind of takeoff that I think is inspired by the glass flowers. Christopher Williams did an exhibit in the 80s on Angola to Vietnam where he used the plants as a way to think about war and movements of people. Other people come in and they’re interested in history of science, and there’s a material culture part of history of science that looks at how it is that we represented things and what can we tell about the culture of a particular time by the objects that are in museums, and why are certain things in certain kinds of museums. In some cases we take these as works of art rather than the botanical side, so they could be in the Harvard Art Museum as well as they could be in the Natural History Museum. But I think one of the important things is that people take their inspiration from the glass flowers in different directions. Some of them use them to inspire their art. There are gardeners and enthusiasts who come in and look at it, and [think], “I wonder if I could grow that at home?” Part of what I do is also study fungi, and we have a whole batch of diseased fruits… that have been modeled. I look at these and I wonder sometimes what inspired Goodale to move to doing these particular types of models? I think you go into the exhibit and you come out with questions that you might not have ever thought that you would have, not just about the plants, but about culture and other things.