When he became director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University in 2002, James Hanken toured each of the museum’s collections to get a handle on the number of objects at its disposal.
Hidden in a collection room in the mollusk department were several glass models of marine and terrestrial invertebrates made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, the father-and-son creators of Harvard’s famous collection of glass flowers. Hanken was amazed that the delicate figurines were all but forgotten in museum storage, and knew immediately that he wanted to restore and exhibit the collection.
The initial discovery was the first step toward restoring the 430-piece collection of Blaschka models in Harvard’s possession, 61 of which are now on permanent display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The “Sea Creatures in Glass” exhibit, which opened May 24, was funded by an anonymous gift in memory of Harvard alumnus Melvin R. Seiden.
Before the Blaschkas turned exclusively to producing glass flowers for Harvard, the German artists (Leopold lived from 1822-95, Rudolf from 1857-1939) crafted models of jellyfish, sea anemones, and other sea creatures, sold through mail-order catalogs, said Hanken. Blaschka glass models were commissioned by museums and universities around the world in the 19th century.
Harvard’s collection was originally purchased for classroom use, displays, and reference collections. The true-to-life glass models, Hanken said, provided a better way for students to learn about the creatures’ anatomy than poring over sketches in textbooks, or actual animals preserved in jars.
“The marine invertebrates [collection is] a perfect representation of the Blaschkas’ career,” Hanken said.
After taking inventory of models scattered throughout several museum departments, Hanken saw that extensive restoration would be required before putting them on display. Elizabeth Brill, of Corning, N.Y., a preservation expert who specializes in Blaschka marine invertebrates, was hired in 2006 to help salvage the aging collection. Brill helped preserve two other Blaschka collections, one at Cornell University in New York and another at the Museum of Science in Boston, and still looked at each new object in Harvard’s collection with “a fresh set of eyes.”
“I never really know what an object needs until I get it under lights and magnifying glass,” Brill said. “I have never seen what an object needs until I really look.”
It took Brill eight years to restore the vast majority of the collection, with about a half-dozen left to complete. The donation that made the exhibit possible is also funding the remainder of her efforts.
Setting up shop in Cambridge a few times a year, Brill would tackle a group of models at a time. She said some objects took as little as an hour to clean and polish, while others took several days, even weeks, to restore. The most extensive restoration involved reconnecting small intricate pieces that had fallen off or come loose. Brill said about 98 percent of the problems with the collection were due to aging.
“The adhesive the Blaschkas used couldn’t battle the change in humidity or temperature, and age just got the better of them,” she said.
At the start of her conservation efforts, Brill believed 40 to 80 of the creatures could not be fixed. Now, she said, there are only about a handful of creatures that are unsalvageable. Over the course of restoring the models, Brill said she started taking note of the changes in the Blaschkas’ techniques, as well as the types of glass and paints used to make their lifelike creatures.
“I started to subconsciously take note of how the men worked. I could make better decisions on how to better conserve the creatures,” she said. “I felt like I was thinking like a Blaschka.”
Jane Pickering, executive director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, said that even though anyone can look up these animals on the Internet or see them on television, the glass models still constitute an up-close way of understanding the details of the animals.
“These glass creatures are still doing exactly the same job they did all those years ago,” she said.