The Frontal Cortex

Glass Flowers

This is glass:

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If you’ve never been to the glass flowers exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History then you are missing out on a truly spectacular fusion of art and science. Here’s NPR:

Back in the late 19th century, botanical teaching models were mostly made of wax or papier maché. Or they were actual plants that had been dried and pressed.

But the replicas were inexact, the pressed specimens faded and flat. So professor Goodale asked the Blaschkas [a father-son team of glass blowers from Dresden] to make glass plants. Fifty years later, after Rudolph retired (and after Leopold had died), they’d finished 4,000 models.

The flowers’ petals and pistils are so accurate that when novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid first saw them, her own garden seemed flat.

“I began immediately to think that real flowers were the imitation,” she laughs — “that the flowers I saw before me in my garden were an imitation of things that were in glass.”

Kincaid was so taken by the flowers that she wrote a magazine article about them. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould compared them to the greatest musical performance he’d ever heard.

What always gets me about these glass flowers is the minor details of decay. The flowers are never flawless. There is always a wilted leaf, or a petal that’s been visited by snails, or a broken stamen. It is this embrace of imperfection that accounts for their stunning verisimilitude. Mark Doty says it best:

Strange paradise, complete with worms,
monument of an obsessive will to fix forms;
every apricot or yellow spot’s seen so closely,
in these blown blooms and fruit, that exactitude
is not quite imitation. Leaf and root,
the sweet flag’s flaring bud already,
at the tip, blackened; it’s hard to remember
these were ballooned and shaped by breath
they’re lovely because they seem
to decay; blue spots on bluer plums,
mold tarring a striped rose.

Comments

  1. #1 Jonah
    June 28, 2007

    A reader just sent me a link to the Blaschkas collection of glass invertebrate at Cornell.

    Thanks!

  2. #2 CCP
    June 28, 2007

    The Boston Science Museum displays some of their invertebrates too…beautiful work!

  3. #3 Elizabeth, MD, PhD
    June 28, 2007

    The GLASS FLOWERS are truly priceless. Conant Hall and Perkins Hall, the graduate dorms at Harvard, are literally right next door and across the street. I would visit the Glass Flowers at least monthly (it must have been free admission for Harvard people), and often took others along; all of my personal visitors were escorted there, sometimes even against their will but always with an appreciative ‘Thank you’ afterwards. Even during a brief visit last OCT, I made it a point to visit The Glass Flowers, even insisting to a busy 4th year physics graduate student to be sure see them before he left Cambridge that week! Another “Thank you.”

    My understanding is that there are three separate groupings of glass flowers in the Harvard collection. One always on display; a second, on loan, and a third, securely stored in another location outside of the New England. The collection on loan apparently travels in the equivalent of a AMBULANCE chassis, never by airplane as the fragile GLASS FLOWERS are irreplaceable. No one has been able to duplicate the process. A few of the original GLASS FLOWERS exist here and there although I do not remember the locations.

    What is equally remarkable is that when I saw The Glass Flowers as a graduate student in the late 70’s, there were no guards around!

    On another line, THE BODIES Exhibit is equally fascinating though I truly appreciate that some may have no personal interest in seeing the exhibit given that the specimens were once real life human beings.

  4. #4 MoonShadow
    June 28, 2007

    wow…that is amazing!

    I’ve seen glass roses, but they were still transparent. But these are coloured! Amazing! The look like real ones. If you didn’t say they were glass, i would be fooled that they were the real thing!

  5. #5 Blue Magruder
    June 29, 2007

    The Harvard Museum of Natural History has 3,000 of the Blaschkas Glass Models of Plants, known as the ‘Glass Flowers’ on permanent display in the climate-controlled gallery at the museum on Oxford St. This museum houses the Glass Flowers, but also dinosaurs, meteorites, gemstones, and hundreds of ‘stuffed’ animals, is the University’s most visited museum. The Corning loan exhibition is definitely worth a road trip– but Harvard’s 3,000 ‘Glass Flowers’ are on display 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, 361 days a year, and free admission for Massachusetts residents every Sunday morning, 9 to noon. Just a 6 minute walk across campus from the Harvard Square T stop. Definitely a ‘must see’ if you’re ever in the Boston area.

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