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December 14, 2006

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blue nudibranch
Ercolania Pancerii (nudibranch), near left. Blue paint on colorless glass. Paints are water-based, so the models must be dusted. These specimens of nudibranchs are the most brilliantly colored group of mollusks. Velella lata (By-the-wind Sailor), middle of page. Top fin was reattached during restoration. This animal is a hydroid, related to jellyfish. It floats on the surface of the ocean and moves with the wind. (All images courtesy of the MCZ)

Eclipsed for decades, Harvard's glass animals step out

By Steve Bradt
FAS Communications

Long overshadowed by their famed floral kin, some of the exquisite 19th century glass animals housed at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) have finally hit the road for a Minnesota exhibit - the first time in Harvard's nearly 130-year ownership that the rare sculptures are known to have left Cambridge.

another sea anemone
Phymactis florida (sea anemone) With restoration, the detached tentacles can be reattached, and the remaining glue and paint stabilized. These types of animals can be found around the globe, living in tide pools.

The exhibit of 29 invertebrate models, dubbed "The Glass Sea Treasures of Harvard: The Age of Darwin," continues through next February at the Underwater Adventures Aquarium in Bloomington, Minn. At that time, the newly cleaned and restored creatures are expected to migrate eastward en masse for a possible exhibition on campus.

Rossia dispar (squid), left. Fins on this model, and others like it, are made from an organic material, such as paper or stretched animal hide. Color pattern serves as camouflage for hiding in the sand.

Originally used by universities and museums the world over as state-of-the-art teaching models in the wake of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species," the glass animals arrived at Harvard around 1878. When considered with the glass flower collection, the cache of 433 lifelike, scientifically accurate, and anatomically correct sculptures comprise the world's largest extant Blaschka collection. A significant collection of the animals housed in Dresden, Germany, was destroyed by bombing during World War II; other North American collections are held by the Boston Museum of Science and Cornell University.

sea anemone in 'open' stage
Actinia chromatodera (sea anemone) The Blaschkas often made several models of the same organism to show different stages of life, magnified parts, etc. This model shows the anemone open for feeding. The anemones open to feed when they are covered in water, and then close themselves when the water recedes or for protection. It is very difficult to preserve a sea anemone in the 'open' stage.

Harvard's invertebrate models were crafted by a father-and-son team of German artisans, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, members of a family whose glassmaking secrets dated to the 15th century. Over five decades starting in 1886, the Blaschkas went on to craft the Harvard Museum of Natural History's renowned array of more than 3,000 glass flowers.

Rudolf Blaschka died in 1939, leaving behind neither children nor apprentices trained to produce the models. Today, Harvard's glass flowers and animals are literally irreplaceable, as modern glassmakers have proven unable to replicate the Blaschka technique.

sea anemone
Actinoloba reticulata (sea anemone) Shiny varnish is not original, was added after purchase. Each tentacle hand-crafted from green glass - several tentacles were reattached during restoration. Sea anemones are related to corals and jellyfish.

Until fairly recently, Harvard's treasure trove of Blaschka animals wasn't very widely known even within the Harvard community. Eclipsed by the MCZ's 21 million other specimens, the full extent of Harvard's glass animal holdings became clear only during an inventory over the past few years. Squirreled away for decades in boxes, cabinets, and improbable corners, some of the glass animals were damaged, and all were dirty.

pelagic snail
Clionopsis krohnii   (pelagic snail) (ventral view) Excellent example of a teaching model, all the internal parts are individually numbered (model is lying on its back, dissected to show internal organs). This snail lives in the open ocean.

The MCZ commissioned Elizabeth Brill, a noted glassworker from western New York, to take stock of the holdings and begin the process of rehabilitating the priceless collection. Brill came to Harvard for several days last summer, gently cleaning and repairing the specimens, a process that continues for the 404 Blaschka models still resident in Cambridge.

drawer of animals
A drawer of mollusk models, pre-restoration, as they have been stored for the past few decades. Originally, the models were shipped from Europe attached to cardboard squares, and packed in sawdust. At the turn of the 20th century, each model was carefully mounted on custom plaster plates. Animals shown here: a variety of nudibranchs (type of mollusk related to slugs and snails), one small octopus.

When it came time for the freshened models' big voyage earlier this autumn - brokered in multiyear negotiations with officials of the Minnesota aquarium - the sparkling animals traveled in style. Accompanied to Logan International Airport by a police escort, the meticulously packed crate occupied its own first-class seat on a flight to Minneapolis, alongside an MCZ employee.

Doris concinna (nudibranch) intricately hand painted by the Blaschkas. In some models, their fingerprints are clearly visible in the paint. These nudibranchs live in intertidal areas.

It's the kind of send-off ordinarily reserved for rock stars - or, in this case, what look to be the world's newest glass stars.


Copyright 2006 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College