It's been a bit of an ugly news cycle this week. Let's look at some gorgeous works of craft and science, shall we? If you don't frequent Boston museums or Ivy League special collections you might not have heard of the Harvard Glass Flowers, but you should.
Harvard University's Museum of Natural History has an enormous collection of glass flowers and plants, which reopened earlier this year after a good deal of diligent and difficult restoration work. The collection is comprised of hyper realistic scientific models of plants, flowers, roots, seeds, and more, all made by hand over 100 years ago.
The flowers were created by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a German father and son team with family roots in fine jewelry and glasswork as far back as the fifteenth century. The botanical works were commissioned in 1886 by George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of Harvard's Botanical Museum, in order to aid study of the burgeoning field.
In an era of booming discovery and taxonomy, and before affordable photography, most botanically inclined students and scientists didn't have access to accurate drawings or models of plants outside their own region. And the Northeast winter is particularly unfriendly to fragile specimens. In glass form, exotic discoveries and delicate inner workings were preserved in lifelike detail that papier mâché models couldn't hope to copy.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Blaschkas used lampworking (or 'flameworking') glass techniques that have barely changed in the 130 years since. Just pigmented glass rods, powdered colors, some tongs and tweezers, and a very hot flame. These stunningly realistic botanical models were created with tools nearly identical to the ones behind your college roommate's collection of "art" bongs.
This level of craft mastery and representation was less rare in an era without instantaneous access to nuanced visual references and information. But even now, with technologically assisted production and an amount of reference material unfathomable to human brains, the craftsmanship involved is special. The textures, colors and minute attention to detail are incredible.
Before embarking on this heap of delicate flowers, the Blaschkas gained renown for their work on glass eyes and equally impressive models of fish and invertibrate sea creatures. They eventually caught the eye of Prince Camil de Rohan, currently ruling over part of Bohemia, and through his patronage they gained access to his incredibly stocked greenouses. The father and son's scientific replicas of the exotic royal plants were displayed as art by the nobility, and their fame crossed the ocean to Harvard.
Supported by former student Mary Lee Ware and her mother Mrs. Elizabeth C. Ware, Harvard's Botanical Museum director opened a commission with the Blaschkas. Over the course of the next several decades, that commissioned project would eventually grow to include around 3,000 models of 847 species.
The Wares donated the collection to the Botanical Museum in memory of Dr. Charles Eliot Ware, and it has remained an enormous attraction ever since.
This spring it reopened after meticulous restoration and re-design of the permanent exhibit. Here's a bit on the BTS work that the curatorial and restoration teams had in front of them with this extra delicate collection.
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I've been there. It's hard to comprehend the detail on the plants and flowers. Such high level of skill.