Exhibitions Podcast Episode 1: Botanical Wonders - July 1, 2007

Welcome. You are listening to a podcast by The Corning Museum of Glass focused on the Museum’s 2007 special exhibition, Botanical Wonders: The Story of the Harvard Glass Flowers. The exhibition, which is on view through November 25, 2007, tells the story of the creation of the extraordinary glass flower collection at Harvard University’s Museum of Natural History. The entire collection of more than 4,000 detailed pieces were made by a father and son team – Rudolph and Leopold Blaschka (blahsh-ka).

David Whitehouse, The Museum’s executive director and co-curator of this exhibition describes the story he hopes to tell:

David: one of the things I hope all of the visitors take away from the exhibition is a lasting impression of a most intriguing story.  It’s a very human story: father and son.  It’s a story of, in a nutshell, the development in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century of first, zoology, and of the study of botany.  It’s… sheds light on the development of museums, and of museum displays, uh… it tells us about transportation at the turn of the 20th century.  It’s a very full lively story that revolves around not only the remarkable models, but the two remarkable people: Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

Today you’ll hear more from Dr. Whitehouse and from his co-curator Susan Rossi-Wilcox, administrator of the glass flowers at Harvard. The discussion is facilitated by William Gudenrath, the resident advisor of The Studio at The Corning Museum of Glass, and a well-known glass historian.

BILL:  Welcome to this collections podcast from the Corning Museum of Glass.  We’ll be speaking today with Dr. David Whitehouse, who’s the Executive Director of the Corning Museum of Glass, and Susan Rossi-Wilcox, who is in charge of the Glass Flowers at Harvard.  And I’m Bill Gudenrath.  I’ll be interviewing them.  I’m the Resident Advisor at the Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass. 

Susan, the glass flowers have been again and again described as one of the wonders of the world.  Would you just tell people, uh… what the glass flowers are, and what they look like

SUSAN: The glass flowers are really like a garden of glass, in that you have, um… models of plants that are related to each other, that are side by side the way, uh… botany students would look at them… so that there are life-sized models of the flowers or the fruit, and then there are magnified, uh… pieces that show various characters that are important.  The collection is scientifically accurate.  It is stunningly beautiful, and there over 4,300 pieces that represent roughly 830 plant species, and about 170 plant families.

INTERVIEWER:  Super, and… and their… and so their purpose for coming to Harvard… They were obviously for botany students, but could you just speak about why they were put there?

SUSAN: … the collection was created because the University was interested in having a natural history museum, and, uh… plants are of course a part of that, along with animals and minerals.  And, um… it’s very difficult to exhibit plants because, ah…  the alternatives are dried, pressed plants or a wax collection, or other kinds of…  of materials that really aren’t very exciting.  Um… and the collection was actually put together so that students would be able to study the different plant groups, but they also wanted the…  visitors to appreciate botany.

INTERVIEWER:  For studio glass people, they really are one of the wonders of the glass world.  What kind of impressions do people have when they first walk into the room where the majority of the models are shown at Harvard?  What’s their… what’s their reaction?

SUSAN: Well, strangely enough most people come in, and they’re looking for the glass flowers.  They don’t… they look so real that they don’t believe that they could possibly be made of glass.  I think people have the idea that they’re going to be very shiny, and… um… they… they aren’t that at all.  They look like the plants look.  And so often when you’re in the Gallery, there’s someone who’ll say there… there, um… to the person they came in with… yes these are the glass flowers; these are really made out of glass.  And then there’s this “Aha!” moment when a person says, “These?  These are made of glass?!”, and it goes from there.  And you… you begin to appreciate how… how lifelike they are, um… through other people’s eyes, um… in the sense of not believing that they could possibly be made.

INTERVIEWER:  Who were the Blaschkas and ah… we say the Blaschkas, what do we mean by “the Blaschkas”?

DAVID: (laughs) The Blaschkas were a father and son team: Leopold Blaschka, born in 1822, and died in 1895, and his son Rudolf, was born in 1857, and he died in 1939.  The Blaschka family came from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic in Central Europe.  Leopold, the father, uh…  went into the family business as a young man, and the business was making costume jewelry and other fancy goods out of glass.  Uh… it was a family of flame workers, who used their glassmaking skills to assem… to… to put together the parts of pieces of jewelry, which they assembled with metal.  And all of this added up, I think, to one of the very important ingredients in the making the models, and that is Leopold was very adept with his fingers, and he was also very adept at flame working. 

INTERVIEWER: Hmm… super.  Flame working.  what is flame working?

DAVID:  Flame working is a very specialized form of glass working, and here’s how it functions:  The flame worker, using a torch, ah… focuses, very tightly, ah… a very hot flame.  And in that flame, ah… he or she softens (through the heat), softens rods or tubes of glass, often of different colors.  And once the glass is soft, it can be bent into the desired shape.  And just as, uh… members of the family put together the components of small pieces of jewelry, so Leopold, and later Rudolf, put together the components of making very complicated, and sometimes rather large, models… sometimes requiring literally hundreds of petals and many dozens of leaves.

INT: so how on earth did they get from making novelty items to making these glass flowers?

DAVID: Well, they got there with one very large, unexpected intermediate step:  Ah… Leopold Blaschka, a skilled flame worker, or lamp worker, ah… moved with his family to Dresden, uh… now in Germany.  And there he came into contact with the, uh… director of the local natural history museum.  And like all directors of natural history museums, um… he had a problem, and the problem simply stated is this: ah… it’s very easy to display minerals, it’s easy to display many zoological specimens - ah… the plumage of birds, the skins of animals mounted in life-like poses; it’s very difficult to display, uh… invertebrate animals - uh… jellyfish, sea anen… sea anemones and the like, because they’re soft-bodied, uh… and they very often, uh… collapse and rot… you can’t preserve them, unless you preserve them in jars of alcohol, and once they’re in the jar of alcohol, the color tends to bleach out of them, and sooner or later they collapse like a heap of jelly on the bottom of the jar.  Hence the problem: What could you do instead?  And, uh… the director of the museum realized that Leopold Blaschka possessed the skills to produce life-like translucent models of marine invertebrate animals like jellyfish.  Ah… Leopold was commissioned to make some models; the models were a success.  The museum director then said, “You know you can make a really nice, small business out of this,” and that’s precisely what Leopold did.  Small, the business was.  Firstly, it was Leopold working alone, later, from 1876, he was assisted by his son, Rudolf.  There were no other assistants.  And out of one small room in their house, they produced literally thousands upon thousands of models of invertebrate creatures.  And by one of the earliest mail-order businesses in the world, they sold them, not only all over Europe, but in North America, in India, in Japan, in Australia, in New Zealand.  They produced a global business.

INT: It’s a fantastic story… it’s a fantastic story, but we… we um… haven’t gotten to the flowers yet you’re…

DAVID: No, we haven’t.

INT: …talking about invertebrates.

DAVID: No, we haven’t.  Uh… right at the beginning of my story, for purely recreational purposes, uh… Le… Leopold made some glass flowers, but he then got into his invertebrate business and did nothing but invertebrates.  (leave out the rest of the paragraph)

INT: Wonderful.  Well, Susan… uh, Dresden’s a long way from Cambridge, but David has just said that they’d been shipping invertebrate models all over the world.  How did, um… how did they come to the attention of Harvard?

SUSAN: Well George Lincoln Goodale, who was the Director of the Botanical Garden at Harvard, saw the invertebrate models and realized, um… through his colleagues that they… the Blaschkas were the makers, and that they tried very hard to make sure that everything was scientifically accurate.  So he had this idea that, um… plants could be made out of glass as well.  And the original thought was just to have a few, ah… models to supplement the other collections that were here in the Museum.  And he went in 1886 to the Blaschkas’ home, um… this is in Dresden – they had moved to Dresden at that point – and wanted to discuss this project.  And it took a lot of discussion apparently to do it, um… but the Blaschkas decided that, uh… they were interested, um… and they produced a few models, uh… a few models were, uh…actually damaged in shipment, uh… when they were unpacked during Customs.  And… but there was… there were enough pieces for everyone to realize that this really was gonna work out well for the… the models of plants, and that they were equally as… as accurate as the invertebrates that the Blaschkas had made.  from that point on, they continued to sign contracts for periods of ten years, and the… the project lasted nearly fifty years.

DAVID: There’s a wonderful story – I hope it’s true – about Professor Goodale’s visit to the Blaschkas’ interest, and it’s this:  Susan mentioned, and I’ve mentioned that Leopold, before he began to make inverte… invertebrate models, was very interested in plants, and he, indeed, made some model orchids.  He then got into the invertebrate business.  Goodale saw some of his invertebrate models in the Zoological Museum in Harvard, and that, uh… spurred him to go to Dresden.  He went to Dresden… met the Blaschkas, who were not initially at all enthusiastic about the project.  I not sure how many meetings they had, but at the end of one meeting, Goodale – I imagine a little bit dejected – ah… was taking his leave of the Blaschkas when he noticed, ah… on the… on the windowsill, ah… a vase I suppose containing an orchid.  And just as Leopold was interested in orchids, so the Professor, like many, uh… professional botanists and plant collectors, was interested in orchids.  So, he turned around and asked if he could look at this prize orchid.  He did; and of course as he got nearer and nearer to it, he saw that it wasn’t an orchid, but a glass orchid, and that convinced him that he absolutely had to convince Leopold to start making, again, botanical models.

INT: That’s a great story.  It sounds absolutely true to me.  (laughter)  Had to have happened. 

INT: Susan, do we, uh… know how, uh… they shipped these things to Harvard?  Are there any crates left?  Do we have any idea how they survived this trip?

SUSAN: Um, we… we do actually have two crates, and, uh… fortunately we’re… we, uh… have a number of pictures of those and there are crates, uh… for the invertebrates, uh… they actually used the same style of shipping.  They basically made their own cardboard boxes that fit… fit the, uh… cardboard on which the models were sort of tied down with wire.  And um… and then building up this… this cardboard box, they put tissue paper underneath any part that was sort of cantle-levered or… or needed to move slightly but needed also to be supported, and, um… around those boxes were, uh… you know… roughly bales of hay that were the cushioning, uh… part of … the shipping materials.  And several of these were built up, and then a canvass was sewn around these bales.  So they were all… they had… they were cushioned, uh… I mean today we use different kinds of foams to help, uh… soften, ah… or, ah… at least absorb the vibrations from shipment and… and from movement, but then they used straw, and that worked apparently very well.

INT: So Susan, you and David in, and I think it was 1993, uh… actually made a trip to Dresden.  Can you tell us a little bit about that?  And I know the Museum and Harvard made some pretty major purchases of Blaschka items.

SUSAN: Yes, we did.  Uh… we… I received a call from a person who had know the glass flowers quite well, and he was concer… he had met the elderly niece of, ah… Rudolf Blaschka’s wife – so this is Rita Blaschka’s niece who was living in the home, and who was in her 80’s.  She was concerned about the… the Blaschkas’ grave, because they have a very different system then we do, uh… one pays yearly for the care of… of graves, and she was concerned about this.  So he called and said that we, of course, had to do something, and, uh… this prompted our visit.  I invited David to come along, uh… on this visit because we both were interested in finding out more about the Blaschkas.  And when we got there, um… she was a very nice woman, and she opened up to us and revealed that she had saved all of the materials, uh… through the… through all of the bombings, through all of those years, um… East Germany had very trying times, she was, uh… not… uh… certainly not a wealthy woman.  Um… but she had preserved all of these things, and we had… we offered to buy them.  So it’s… it’s, uh… She was thankful about that, um… and it also allowed us to, um… purchase business records, letters, herbarium specimens, uh… drawings and so forth… all of the studio materials, um… everything that was left of the… the business records, and so forth, the personal correspondence.  And it really is one of the better, uh… documented 19th, early 20th century studios in glass… in glass making.

INT: Susan, would you talk a little bit about their expertise as botanists?  Could you just talk a little bit about their, um… their botanical expertise, and… and also, um… their remarkable ability to draw.

SUSAN: If you look back at Leopold’s interests, uh… he… he was actually very interested in plants really early on, ah… probably in the 1850’s/1860’s, uh… and he, like many people in that… in that era, ah… turned to botany when he wasn’t…  he… he was… he was very ill, and botany was a way of… of passing time and… and keeping his interests… um, and he seems to have been interested in exotic plants.  He had connections probably with the gardener of the… the, uh… green houses for Prince Camille de Rohon and Sea Crove, which is now in Bohemia.  And so he studied that very remarkable collection of exotic plants.  So, he… he had this interest, uh… as David was saying, he worked on invertebrates and created the business, but then had the opportunity to go back and look at… at, uh… plants.  And his son, who was educated by the Jesuits … he was very much interested in zoology, and as a child collected different kinds of insects, um… was also very interested in plants, and became more so when they had the opportunity to make the glass flowers collection.  One of, uh… one of the… the questions that were often asked, um… has to do with the reference materials, and, um… as people may, um… realize because we had a botanical garden here at Harvard at the time, there were seeds and cuttings that were sent to the Blaschkas so that they could raise them in their garden.  And some of those things, harperella and a number of other, uh… common plants, were found there as well as… as the orchard plants like apples and so forth were found, um… on the Orsate, um… many years later in the… in the late 1990’s when we visited.  But, um… getting back to the… the reference materials, they… there was a point when they were finding it difficult to obtain materials, and because they wanted to … make the models from plants that they could observed from first-hand, um… there was a question of always getting materials from different, uh… botanical gardens, nurseries, um… arboreta, and so forth.  And by the 1890’s there was, uh… a real problem getting new species or getting species that were of interest, um… to the… the… the Harvard faculty, and the suggestion that Rudolf made was to do field work, and finally in 1892 he was able to do that.

INT: Blaschkas actually did their own research.  They were… they were actually, uh… field researchers in a way, isn’t that true?  In their preparation for the, uh… invertebrate models?

DAVID: They both conducted their own research.  They were both noted in Dresden and elsewhere as very keen amateur naturalists.  The way the invertebrate models came… came about is really very interesting, and it does indeed involve a voyage.  Leopold Blaschka decided to visit the United States.  During the voyage across the Atlantic, the ship he was traveling in became becalmed, and partly to pass the time, uh… Leopold observed the creatures in the sea around his ship and drew them.  He became fascinated by them, not least because the translucency of jellyfish, Medusas, other small marine animals, reminded him of glass.  And so when the professor of Natural History in Dresden asked him if he’d consider making some models of invertebrates, um… the answer was almost naturally was “yes”.  Now the son, Rudolf, was a much more adventurous traveler, and he did indeed go on deliberate field trips.  While he and his father were still making, uh… models of invertebrates, he made a field trip to the Adriatic - that part of the Mediterranean Sea that lies between Italy and, uh… and the Balkans.  And part of his purpose was to visit, uh… marine biology stations to observe living, uh… specimens, and to arrange for their transportation, believe it or not, ah… from… from the sea, to their studio in Dresden.  But then the main voyages of, uh… exploration… the research trips that Rudolf conducted were fundamentally in search of plant species to collect, to observe the living plants, and to leave us a legacy of most remarkable detailed botanical drawings. 

INT: … and we should mention that in the show “Botanical Wonders: The Story of the Harvard Glass Flowers”, the drawings will feature just as much as the glass models.  Am I not right?


INT: Wonderful, wonderful.  In association with this show, there are other special features at the Museum.  Isn’t that true?

DAVID: Yeah, I think one of the features is… is very special indeed.  We’ve managed to acquire, uh… a flame workers bench, almost identical to the bench used by Rudolf Blaschka.  And some of our staff members who are glass workers, who demonstrate glass working techniques, will be making their own glass flowers in public demonstrations using the kind of tools and the kind of bench that the Blaschkas’ themselves used.

INT: Susan the glass flowers at Harvard are somewhat famously having conservation problems these days.  People talk about, ah… problems with parts falling off and so forth.   What’s… what’s really the story there?  What’s really going on with them in terms of their preservation?

SUSAN:  Well, they’re, um… because they’re… we talk about them as glass flowers, and glass models, but in fact they are mixed media: there’s glass, wire, um… adhesive, um… let’s see, what else… uh… various, um… resin products, um… varnishes, and so forth, as… as well as artistic pigments for the early models.  And over the years, and… and this is really quite a long time, um… that they’ve been on exhibit, since they actually were on… they… they were on exhibit when they first came to the University in 1887, and they’ve been… many of these models have been on exhibit, um… and continue to be on exhibit today.  And over that time, there are pieces that have dropped off, there are, um… there’s various kinds of damage that glass experiences (breaks, cracks, and so forth), um… there’s… there’s also… all of the models need to be cleaned, and this is a building that was heated with coal, and… you know… has a lot of residues from that that need to be cleaned off as well.  In addition, um… there are models that were made from, ah… Blaa… from Rudolf Blaschka’s experiments, and these are glasses that he formulated himself, and, um… often ground into powders to use as enamels, and some of these are unstable, um… there’s, ah… some of the alkaline is precipitating out, and this needs to be arrested as well.  So there… there are a variety of issues: there’s, uh… de-lamination, there’s just regular… there’s cleaning, um… there’s cracks and breaks that need to be repaired, and then there’s the, um… ah… the… um… the aspect of conserving models where the… the glass… the glass formulas are not as stable as… as we’d like for them to be.

INT: Now at the Corning Museum of Glass, there is, on permanent display, a group of invertebrate models of the Blaschkas’, is that not true, David?

DAVID: There is.  We… we’re very fortunate to have on long term loan from Cornell University, part of their very large collections, more than 600 models, acquired in the 1880’s as teaching aides, just as a little bit later, Harvard began to acquire botanical models as teaching aides.

INT: Now you… now for you, as the Director of the Glass Museum, what are your concerns about conservation, with respect to, first of all, the, uh… invertebrate models, because they’re under your care now? (laughs) And then second, the glass flowers of which the Museum has a few, no?

DAVID:  We do… do have a few.  In both cases, both with the invertebrates and with the glass flowers, I think… I think the concerns are three… or rather the difficulties are three.  One of them is the difficulty that… that Sue… Susan mentioned.  Um… models (and this includes some of the invertebrates) are essentially mixed media models.  Um… some of the ingredients are chemically unstable.  So, there’s an inherent problem, ah… with the models themselves.  Mixed… the different media of mixed media very often have different environmental requirements for their long-term preservation.  The more mixed the media, the more conflicting environmental concerns you have.  So, the first problem is with the models themselves.  As is the second problem, namely, especially with the larger botanical models, the extreme complexity of the models.  I mentioned earlier models with hundreds of petals, dozens of leaves… So, the conservation of just one model may involve a great deal of time and extreme delicacy of touch.  Some of the petals and leaves, some of the component parts are very small indeed – they’re almost weightless – and they’re very often attached to the… the parent model, if you will, by just the thinnest little bit of glass glue, or indeed animal glue, ah… and now after over a hundred years, they are very fragile, indeed.  The third issue in-involves the… the scale of the problem; the botanical models were made over a fifty year period.  Susan has described the hundreds of different species, and the several thousand different details of some of the plants and flowers; so the scale of the conservation problem is vast.  One model can take several months to conserve and clean; several hundred models… you can do the arithmetic yourselves.

INT: Hmm.  That sounds like a few Sistine Chapels and a couple of “Last Suppers” by Da Vinci. (laughter)  I don’t envy…

DAVID: Ah, the Blaschkas would be flattered!  (laughter)

INT: Susan, the glass flowers are incredibly fascinating to a wide range of people.  And there’s… there’s even a body of literature that refers to the glass flowers, isn’t there?

SUSAN: Um… yes, actually there is.  In… in… in… in different kinds of ways, um… there are people like, um… the author Jane Langdon, who wrote the “Homer Kelly” series, and she used air…uh… area landmarks around Boston, and the glass flowers are a part of that.  Um… there’s another, um… author who uses New England settings, uh… Donna Tarte.  Maryanne Moore wrote a poem just about the glass flowers, um… which is… is really, uh… uh… widely quoted, I think.  Um… and then there are other people, artists for example, who have used the glass flowers in different kinds of ways.  Christopher Williams comes to mind.  He really did exploit the, uh… models rigid but… but really fragile nature, uh… by pairing them with human rights issues.  And there are other people, like Jill Reynolds for example, who had a, uh… Bunting Fellowship through Radcliff College, and, um… she was interested in… in the organic forms, and created a series of work that was on exhibit here, um… at Harvard… Harvard-Radcliff, um… which was called “Nexus”.

INT: And Jill Reynolds work is very much admired by the Corning Museum of Glass, isn’t it David?

DAVID: Well it is.  And a few years ago when we were selecting the recipient of our, ah… Rakow Commission, which is an annual commission we give, uh, glass artists, Jill’s name came up, and she was awarded the Commission, and the piece we commissioned from her, anyone who comes to see the glass flowers will be walking past as they approach our gallery, and they should stop and admire it.

INT: There are many studio glass artists who specialize in botanical, um… imagery, um… particularly paperweight makers, isn’t that true?

DAVID: I think that’s very true.  And one name that comes immediately to mind is Paul Stankard, an American flame worker, paperweight maker, maker of small sculpture, who has spent his life as an artist perfecting, ah… his miniaturized models of flowers and plants, mostly plants from his neighborhood in, uh… New Jersey.

INT: Now you said “miniaturized”; the things that go in paperweights… the botanical objects that go in paperweights are very miniaturized, aren’t they?

DAVID: They are indeed, yes… yes… simply because paperweights are small objects, and if you want to make a bouquet of flowers, you’ve got to make them very small flowers.

INT: And that’s in sharp contrast to the work of the Blaschkas, which is… which is full scale, right?

DAVID: Well, it’s very largely full scale.  Most of the models are full scale, but far from miniaturizing some of their models, they actually made great enlargements with the help of a microscope.  Some of the models of the diseases of fruit include details magnified many dozens of times in order to show in minute detail, uh… the funguses that have attached these various fruits.

INT: David the Museum has about 300,000 visitors a year, many… many of whom are kids… um, is there anything that gonna be able to keep them entertained?

DAVID: I think so.  I think… uh, models of glass eyes and models of rotten fruit are pretty entertaining, but we try to go one step further and really engage the younger visitors, and one of the aspects of the show, which is a bit of a departure for us in our summer exhibitions, is there will be special label copy at a convenient height for younger visitors, and at the end of the show, having displayed some of the Blaschka drawings, we have a special kids section, which is titled, “Draw Like the Blaschkas”.  There will be animal and plant specimens displayed.  There will be a tabletop with drawing materials there, and the invitation to… to the child, is to try a hand at it.  Pick up a pencil, take a piece of paper, look closely at one of these models, and you try and draw it.  And when you’ve done that, you’ve got your souvenir of your visit to Corning, ‘cause you’re welcome to take it home and show it to your friends.

You’ve been listening to a podcast about the exhibition, Botanical Wonders: The Story of the Harvard Glass Flowers, which is on view at The Corning Museum of Glass through November 25, 2007.  For more information, visit the museum’s website at www.cmog.org.

The Corning Museum of Glass, located in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, showcases 35 centuries of glass artistry. The Museum campus includes the world’s largest collection of artistic and historical glass; a hands-on exhibition area related to the science and technology of glass; a glassmaking school; live, narrated public glassmaking demonstrations and the world’s library of record on glass and glassmaking.