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No Really, These Century-Old Aquatic Creatures Are Made of Glass

How 19th century German glassblowers created some of the world's most delicate scientific models.

Noémie Jennifer

Blaschka Nr. 35, made in 1885. Animal depicted was named Anthea Cereus then, but is now referred to as Anemonia sulcata. Images courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass

A dimly lit room at the Corning Museum of Glass, in upstate New York, feels like a deep water dive: A single, L-shaped display case, embedded along two midnight-blue walls, shines with a diverse family of extraordinary aquatic beings. There are no labels, leaving visitors to focus on materiality alone, and allowing them some time to process the fact that the intricate creatures are all, indeed, made of glass. So begins the exhibition Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. "This room is supposed to be the underwater experience, and then you come up for air in the next gallery, which has detailed descriptions," explains the show's co-curator, Alexandra Ruggiero, as she walks The Creators Project through the exhibition.

Blaschka Nr. 564, made in 1885. Animal depicted was named Loligopsis veranii then, but is now referred to as Chirotheuthis veranii, or long-armed squid.

Leopold Blaschka (1822–1895) and his son Rudolf Blaschka (1857–1939) worked together in Dresden, Germany. Though they are best known today for their glass flowers, housed at Harvard, their repertoire of marine invertebrate models was extensive, and examples survive across the world. For the past three years, Ruggiero and her co-curator, Marvin Bolt, have been mapping all the collections that contain models or objects related to their production. They expected around 75 locations but ended up with nearly 200—and counting.

The Blaschkas were master artisans and savvy businessmen who held a strong interest in natural history. Since wet specimens were hard to preserve and difficult to study, glass models were a far more reliable teaching tool, and the Blaschkas quickly figured out that the best way to sell their wares was to employ individuals who were supplying the many nascent universities and natural history museums of the time with specimens, gems, and minerals. They worked with a network of international agents, who took orders and dispatched what were essentially mail-order catalogs, organized by model number. The exhibition includes one such catalog destined for the US market—in 1878, individual pieces like Blaschka Nr. 172 sold for as little as $3.50.

Blaschka Nr. 216, made in 1885. Animal depicted was named Porpita mediterranea then, and is now referred to as Porpita porpita, or blue button. Watch a real one move here.

In 1885, Cornell University ordered 570 of the 700 Blaschka models available. As underwater photography and video became commonplace in the following century, the models fell into disuse and were sent to the Corning Museum in the 1960s on long-term loan. Most of the models on view in Fragile Legacy are part of that collection, and Corning has since acquired many related objects from the Blaschkas' studio, which provide insight into the duo's production process. The museum's research library also holds hundreds of the drawings they made before prototyping models.

As is clear from side-by-side comparisons of their detailed drawings with natural history illustrations from the time, the Blaschkas started off by copying from publications. "As they became more well-known, they gained better access to the latest scholarship," comments Ruggiero, who notes that they were constantly improving on their models. An early prototype of an anemone, for example, was mistakenly sculpted as a flat disc because it was based on an illustrated view from above. And while earlier models often made use of colored glass, the Blaschkas soon moved towards colorless glass, which they then painted in exquisite detail.

Blaschka Nr. 260, made in 1885. Animal depicted was named Ophiothrix Serrata then, and probably corresponds to what's now known as Ophionereis annulata. See a real one here.

In a kind of prologue to the exhibition, the curators have included a small case with examples of other work to demonstrate the Blaschkas' unique talents: A box of prosthetic glass eyes, which they continued to produce throughout their career, are remarkably lifelike, with different vein configurations and pupil sizes (so one could switch to larger pupils at night, for example). This level of precision and care is even more evident throughout the marine invertebrate collection. The Blaschkas strived for scientific accuracy, incorporating bits of paper and metal wire to sculpt the finer details. To make the threads that dangle from the bottom of a Physophora hydrostatica (Blaschka Nr. 213), they dipped copper wire in glass to form little beads along its surface. A sea gastropod with a translucent body (Blaschka Nr. 546) even includes internal organs. And on their octopus models, each sucker was made individually, then glued on.

Matchbox containing pre-made parts

Those repeated shapes—octopus suckers, anemone tentacles—were made in bulk, in advance, in order to fulfill orders efficiently. To make the hundreds of tiny hairs on what is now known as an Ophionereis annulata (Blaschka Nr. 260), they prepared fused sets of 4-5 hairs that were then glued. A case of premade parts, organized by type inside repurposed match boxes, survives today, as does Rudolf's work bench. The extant objects provide a glimpse into how the Blaschkas worked, but the Corning Museum has the human resources to go even further: After consulting with conservators, their team of flameworkers has been busy reconstructing the artisans' process:

The Blaschka models continue to influence glassmakers today and have inspired scientists and environmentalists as well. Drew Harvell, Associate Director of Environment at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell, set out on a quest with filmmaker David Owen Brown to film living examples of the Blaschka creatures. Because of the toll of human activities on the planet's oceans, many are now hard to find. "If ever there was a time to compare the plentiful past with an ocean in jeopardy, that time would be now," says Harvell in a press release for the museum. Through this lens, Fragile Legacy takes on a double meaning. The exhibition is an invitation to look closely—not just because beauty is in the details, but because this may be all we have.

Blaschka Nr. 440, made in 1885. The sea slug depicted was named Ercolania Uziellii then, and is now referred to as Ercolania viridis.

Blaschka Nr. 573, made in 1885. Animal depicted is the Octopus Salutii, commonly known as spider octopus.

Blaschka Nr. 546, made in 1885. The sea gastropod depicted was named Carinaria mediterranea then, and is now referred to as Carinaria lamarckii. See a real one here.

Blaschka Nr. 207, made in 1885. Animal depicted was named Halistemma punctatum then, and is now referred to as Halistemma rubrum. See a real one move here.

Blaschka Nr. 213, made in 1885. Animal depicted was named Physophora magnifica then, and is now referred to as Physophora hydrostatica. See a real one here.

To see more incredible objects from the Fragile Legacy exhibition, go here. Several have 360-degree views. To see the exhibition in person at the Corning Museum of Glass, hurry—it closes January 8, 2017.

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