Human Flower Project

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Harvard’s Flowers for All Seasons

There’s not much in bloom across New England now, save at Harvard’s natural history museum. James Wandersee and Renee Clary bring us in from the cold to an array of plants, shimmering since the 19th century.


Glass iris, Harvard Museum of Natural History

Photo: cf0171

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

First unblocked and explored in May, 1986, Lechuguilla Cave is situated in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, about 5 miles from the Carlsbad caves. Its precise location and entry point are closely guarded secrets to protect this warm, dry cave’s fragile ecosystem and its unique gypsum crystal formations, which could so easily be damaged by human contact and exposure. The majority of us will only be able to experience this natural geological wonder vicariously—through photographs taken by the select few who have been granted access to it.

A long way from New Mexico, Massachusetts has a human-made attraction, also fragile, one that became famous about a century before Lechuguilla Cave’s discovery. It mimics natural botanical wonders. Known as the Harvard Glass Flowers, it is a collection of fragile glass objects that entices plant lovers, and, in contrast with the Carlsbad crystals, public viewing is welcome. Averaging 120,000 visitors per year, The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants resides within the Harvard Museum of Natural History, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 361 days of each year.


A visitor views The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants

Photo: BikeNerd

This Boston-area attraction is little advertised, a bit hard to find, and somewhat difficult to reach without considerable walking, yet this is exactly what draws plant aficionados to the priceless collection—its nature as a “hidden treasure,” plus its distinct fragility.

Why are the “Glass Flowers” located in Cambridge, MA and not, say, at the Natural History Museum of Berlin? Answer: Because of the value that one Harvard scientist placed upon explaining science to the public.  The influential, albeit sometimes incorrect,  European glaciologist and zoologist Louis Agassiz, had been recruited by Harvard University to bolster its sciences in the mid-1800s, at a time when well-to-do Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were enamored of the new science of natural history. Agassiz saw comprehensive and accurate teaching collections as core elements of a world-class scientific research center.  At that time, teaching and research were seen as mutually sustaining enterprises—a university could not excel at one without the other.


Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, glass artisans of Dresden, Germany

Photo: Rakow Research Library of The Corning Museum of Glass

George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of the Botanical Museum of Harvard, commissioned two German glass model makers, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. From 1886 to 1936, these Dresden artisans created realistic-looking plant structures—4,400 glass models, including amazingly accurate flowers and fruits, representing 164 plant families, totaling 847 species and plant varieties. Because of their anatomical precision—which has rendered them extremely delicate—the Harvard Glass Flowers remain a unique public teaching tool, even in the 21st century. Why? There is no place on Earth where anyone can go to see all of these plants in bloom simultaneously, much less examine them in three dimensions!


Prunus armeniaca

, life-sized branch of an apricot in fruit

by Rudolf Blaschka, from colored glasses he made himself

Photo: Kris Snibbe, for Harvard University Gazette

In addition to encouraging you to see the Harvard Glass Flowers with your own eyes, we would also like to underscore the importance of service as patrons for a science museum’s programs.  Professor Goodale’s former student Mary Lee Ware and her mother, Elizabeth Ware, heir to a maritime fortune, agreed to underwrite the 1886 consignment from the Blaschkas. Such accessions and the Ware patronage continued across a time span of 50 years, including museum case upon museum case of leaf, stem, bud, blossom, and fruit—all life-sized. Accompanying them were examples of the sections and cross-sections that a botany student might make of stamen, pistil, and ovary (or fruit)—magnified as if by the laboratory’s own microscope.

Even though well-curated and recently restored, the Harvard Glass Flowers, like real flowers, will not last forever. They are relatively evanescent and ephemeral. Objects in the collection continue to break and to change color. Pennsylvania State University glass expert Carlo Pantano notes that even after it has been shaped and cooled, this glass is still subject to chemical changes through weathering and corrosion. Plus, the glass available when the flowers were created was not of the highest quality and purity. Unbalanced internal forces can cause the glass to fracture and split. Colors may shift and vanish. The beauty of the Harvard Glass Flowers lies partly in their fragility.

To paraphrase the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick,

See the Glass Flowers while ye yet may,

Old Time is still a-flying:

And the same flowers that inspire to-day

Tomorrow, in fragments will be lying.

Seeing plants in the field is best, but using replicas to prepare oneself to recognize and observe real plants is a close second. While we advocate noticing and appreciating the living plants around us all, we do think the Harvard Glass Flowers capture the visual essence of these botanical wonders and can help us all comprehend and appreciate the complex panorama that is the Plant Kingdom. 

Plus, you can view this fragile-yet-vibrant collection in the wintertime!



Posted by Julie on 11/28 at 11:48 AM
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