CAMBRIDGE — In a way, the reinstalled Ware Collection of the Blaschka Glass Models of Plants at the Harvard Museum of Natural History is still just a room full of plants. Mounted in cases next to crisp new species labels, the leaves, branches, and blossoms at first glance are no more exciting than anything you’d see by looking out your window.
That is, in the century since they’ve been crafted, no one’s been able to detect a single fault in the glass flowers, as the lifelike sculptures are known, that might betray the truth that there’s not a single real plant in that room. Now, having reopened the exhibit May 21 after it closed last November, organizers are hoping that the glass flowers’ biggest revamp in over 100 years will dare a new generation to find a flaw in the models.
The first of the flowers arrived at Harvard in 1887, seven years after Harvard botanist George Lincoln Goodale, hoping for more engaging teaching tools than pressed plants or wax models, commissioned them from German father-son glass workers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Their partnership lasted until 1936, giving Harvard more than 4,000 pieces to care for, each anatomically perfect and, given all the glass workers who’ve tried and failed, unreproducible.
“It felt very full, very overwhelming,” said collection manager Jennifer Brown, describing the original exhibit. “ ‘Cavernous’ was a word people liked to use.”
The dark ceiling and cramped rows of cabinets that made up the display were, in Brown’s words, just “grandfathered in.” Closing the exhibit altogether gave the chance for serious upheaval. But since 113 years is a lot of history to simply paint over, Brown and the rest of the team struck a balance. The collection’s antique cabinets, for example, had to have a role.
“A lot of things were falling apart,” said Sylvie Laborde, the museum’s assistant director of exhibitions and senior designer. “But a lot of people felt the old cases were part of the collection’s identity.”
The team hired a Salem restoration company to spruce up the wooden furniture. The legs were shortened a few inches to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, while the panels were replaced with more transparent and less distortive low-lead glass.
Newer, but fewer, cabinets were brought in to supplement the old ones. The bigger goal, Brown said, was to remedy the dense and chaotic layout of the cabinets, dialing back the number of items on display while adding new labels for a more educational and less overwhelming experience.
“It wasn’t really clear that there was an order, or what the order was,” Brown said. “People asked all the time, ‘So is there an order to this?’ ”
The pieces are now arranged by taxonomic family, with a tree (diagram, not glass) indicating how the plants are related. The groupings make for interesting insights. Donald Pfister, professor of systematic botany at Harvard, pointed out models of the cashew and mango plants, grouped under Anacardiaceae.
“It’s the same family as poison ivy,” Pfister said. “That’s why some people have the same sort of allergic reaction to cashews and mangos.”
More space in the layout also allows the museum to rotate out temporary displays, keeping the overall exhibit more dynamic. Right now, the theme is pollination — complete with magnified insects — but the team is already looking ahead.
“We’re kind of thinking about rotten fruits,” Pfister said. The Blaschkas did, in fact, make models of them. “I wish I knew more about the motivations behind that.”
As for the rest of the 4,000, the collection now has its first dedicated conservator, Scott Fulton, previously of Harvard’s Peabody Museum, and a new conservation lab to keep the sculptures looking alive.
The cavern is no more, with gentler new lighting and the original maple flooring, which had been hidden under the carpeting, warming the room considerably. At its center, appropriately enough, is the Blaschkas’ bench, topped with the same simple iron tools the pair used to craft the jungle surrounding it. Seeing the bench in contrast with the models makes for more than a little dissonance.
“I always thought that we just made this up,” Pfister said, half joking. Anyone seeing the glass flowers for the first time, especially now, could be forgiven for agreeing with him.