This is glass.
And not only that, but they are scientifically accurate. Go ahead. Zoom in.
These are several of the thousands of glass “teaching” sculptures made by the famous father and son German glass artists, Leopold Blaschka (27 May 1822– 3 July 1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (17 June 1857–1 May 1939).
In the time before fiberglass and plastic the Blaschkas filled an important niche in scientific education. While taxidermy, skeletons and preserved skins could be used to teach vertebrate anatomy, the only way to teach invertebrate anatomy and botany was through preserved or dried specimens.
Neither of these provided satisfactory results however. Invertebrates preserved in alcohol or formalin lost their color and collapsed when taken from their jars. Dried flowers were pressed flat and were too delicate to pry open to see their inner works.
There did exist at that time, crude papier-mâché and wax models which were fine for teaching students to recognize general features, but these didn’t provide scientifically accurate details. Enter the Blaschkas, first Leopold and later his son. Descended from a long line of jewelers and glass artists, they began filling commissions for private collectors, including a set of 100 glass orchids for wealthy amateur naturalist Prince Camille de Rohan. They also made decorative glass items and glass eyes.
Later, inspired by the sea, they began making life-size anatomically accurate glass invertebrate models which they sold to teaching museums, aquaria and universities. Working with scientist Ernst Haeckel and studying live marine invertebrates that they kept in an aquarium, the glass-makers’ scientific accuracy improved. In 1880 the Blaschkas shipped 131 glass marine invertebrates to the Boston Society of Natural History Museum (now the Museum of Science).
These were noticed by Harvard professor George Lincoln Goodale who, in 1886, was developing a museum for teaching botany. Impressed with the animal specimens, Goodale went to Dresden and convinced the Blaschkas to make a small set of botanical specimens.
So spectacular were the specimens, that Harvard offered the Blaschkas an exclusive contract to create the entire botanical collection out of glass. That commission lasted 50 years. Leopold died in 1895; Rudolf continued working until 1936. Between them, the pair created some 3,000 glass models representing 847 plant species for the school.
Some other places to see the Blaschkas’ work are:
- Corning Museum of Glass (Corning, NY)
- Natural History Museum (London)
- The Grant Museum of Zoology (London)
- The Redpath Museum at McGill University (Montreal)
- Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)
- Australian Museum (Sydney)
- National Museum of Wales
If you can’t get to any of those places, have a look at what Flickr has to offer and check out these videos.
About the Blaschkas and the collection at the Natural History Museum
Fragile Legacy-The Blaschka’s Time Capsule of Marine Biodiversity: Drew Harvell at TEDxChemungRiver