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120 Years Later, Harvard's Garden of Glass Flowers Is Still in Bloom

Harvard's famed collection of Glass Flowers counts over 4,000 models—and one conservator is making sure their timeless beauty endures for another century to come.

by Noémie Jennifer
Jul 18 2017, 3:44pm

Rhododendron maximum (Model 608), Rudolf Blaschka, 1896. The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants on exhibit in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Harvard University © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Even though the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants was originally commissioned as a teaching tool at Harvard, it has always been cherished as much more: Safely locked away inside display cases, the models were handled as little as possible and showcased as a museum exhibit since the 1890s. The extensive collection, which counts over 4,000 glass masterpieces in total, kept its makers busy for nearly 50 years. Working near Dresden, Germany, father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka began work on the first models in 1886. After Leopold's death in 1895, Rudolf carried on the endeavor into the 1930s, sending off the last shipment to Massachusetts in 1936. Since that time, some models had barely been touched until 2015, when the Harvard Museum of Natural History undertook a six-month renovation of their Glass Flowers display.

Radcliffe students admiring the glass models, circa late 1930s. Archives of Rudolph and Leopold Blaschka and the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants

"It's amazing that this collection even exists. It was made at the only time that it could have been made—a few years later, you start getting into plastics," comments collection manager Jennifer Brown, on the phone with Creators. The Blaschkas were contacted after Harvard professor George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of the Botanical Museum, saw some of their glass models of marine invertebrates at the school's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Tasked with presenting botany exhibits at the new museum, Goodale knew that actual plant specimens, which easily lose their color, would not attract the public, and that scientific models—then made with paper mache and wax—would deteriorate over time. Glass models would be more resilient, and the Blaschkas clearly had the skills to achieve lifelike precision. With financing from the Ware family, Harvard would go on to acquire life-size models of 847 plant species from the German artisans, along with detailed anatomical sections and enlarged flower parts for study and instruction.

Conservator Scott Fulton. All images unless otherwise noted: The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, Harvard University © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Conservator Scott Fulton was initially asked to weigh in on the preservation of the Glass Flowers back in the 1990s, while he worked at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology next door. In 2015, Fulton became the dedicated conservator for the collection, filling a crucial role in anticipation of the gallery renovations last year. Yet the work continues to this day—cleaning the models, making repairs, and most of all, maintaining a stable environment in the galleries in order to prevent deterioration. With soft artist brushes and, if needed, the occasional solvent, he patiently takes off years and years of soot and grime from coal-running furnaces. "We have no idea what people breathed in back then, but I'm finding it on these glass models," jokes the conservator. He also corresponds regularly with the conservators at the Corning Museum of Glass to apply their latest techniques, such as using flexible acrylic fills that can be sized and shaped to replace a missing piece.

Above, acrylic fills setting in their molds. Below, example of a repair using one of these fills.

In the early models, the Blaschkas used clear, commercial glass, to which they added pigments, animal glues, and other coatings in order to render every exquisite detail. Today, these are the materials that tend to cause issues as they respond to changes in the environment. The gelatin coating used to reproduce the venation of a leaf, for example, might start peeling because gelatin is sensitive to humidity.

The gelatin-based coating used to render the venation of this leaf is peeling off the surface of the glass.

Later models, made of colored glass instead of painted glass, tend to present fewer issues: "After Leopold's death, Rudolf started going in another direction and experimenting with making his own glass and his own enamels. He had his own furnace and tried to make the glass as real and naturalistic in color as possible," explains Fulton. "He added chemical compounds like lead and potassium to manipulate and lower the melting point so that he could use glass over glass. He really had to know his physics and his chemistry." As does any conservator: That much is clear as Fulton embarks on a scientifically rigorous explanation as to why these later models tend to get some white spotting during humid summer months—something about lead and potassium oxides moving through the glass and producing a salt. For our purposes, the details matter little; we can rest assured in the knowledge that Fulton knows what he's doing, and exactly which solvent to use to treat the problem.

Luffa cylindrica (Model 272), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, 1892. The Archives of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka and The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, Harvard University © President and Fellows of Harvard College
In high humidity, salts rise to the surface of some of the colored glass models.
Scott Fulton working on a model of an Emperor Alexander apple affected by apple scab disease: Malus pumila (Model 813), Rudolf Blaschka, 1932.
Panoramic view of the Glass Flowers display today. The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants on exhibit in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Harvard University © President and Fellows of Harvard College

The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, commonly known as the Glass Flowers, is on permanent exhibition at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. To watch a video about the display's recent restoration, go here.

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