The Museum of Vitreous Ecology opened on March 24, 2017, and will remain on display through May 15, 2017, in the hallway outside 3110 MLB (click here for exhibition dates and times).
The histories of art, nature and science meet in the glass models of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka (1822–1895). The intricate creatures that first came to the University of Michigan 125 years ago have moved freely between these realms. They inspired students in the nineteenth century to further their studies in biology and struck a chord with visitors to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History. In the late twentieth century new technologies of visualization and learning displaced most of the glass miniatures and they went into storage. This exhibit brings them back into public view.
Together with his son Rudolf Blaschka (1857–1939), Leopold brought a century-long Bohemian family tradition in the artistry of glasswork to Dresden. Here in the Saxon capital, Leopold and Rudolf studied natural history through descriptions, illustrations and live specimens. They met in nearby Jena with zoologist Ernst Haeckel, whose research expounded on Darwinian evolutionary theory and who developed the notion of ecology as the study of the relationship between organisms and their environment.
Haeckel and other nineteenth century naturalists – including the Englishman Philip Henry Gosse and Louis Agassiz at Harvard University – drew attention to the very first animal life forms to develop in the ocean: curious marine invertebrates, wirbellose Meerestiere, like jellyfish, sea anemones, sea slugs or sea cucumbers. However, their fluid, flowerlike forms quickly fade when preserved in alcohol. With their glass models – superior to contemporary models made out of wax or paper – Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka captured the transparency, colors and details of these species. Emphasizing the symmetry and intricacy of organic forms the naturalism of the Blaschka models also mirrored contemporary conventions of art and beauty.
One of the first museum directors to discover the Blaschkas’ art of glass modeling for biological exhibitions was Ludwig Reichenbach, director of Dresden’s courtly natural history collections and botanical garden. Reichenbach exhibited Blaschka sea anemones in dry aquaria that mimicked the original marine habitat. From Dresden, the glass models began their path to global fame. Museums and universities in Europe, Canada, the USA and Australia ordered the fragile specimens from Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka who created each one individually in their glasswork studio.
Between 1862 and 1890, the father and son team designed 800 different marine invertebrate models. After 1890, the Blaschkas concentrated solely on a commission of an extensive array of glass plants, known as the “glass flowers,” for the Botanical Museum at Harvard University. The collection at the University of Michigan encompasses approximately 78 marine invertebrate models, many of which have only survived in fragments. The first group arrived in Ann Arbor in the late nineteenth century to support the “scientific apparatus” and teaching of biology. In 1928, a second set of glass specimens was brought to campus for the inaugural exhibition in the new University Museums building. All specimens seem to have been bestowed to the University as gifts from Louis Agassiz’s Blaschka collection at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.
To this day, some of these Blaschka marine invertebrate models remain on display to support the story of evolution as told in the Museum of Natural History in the Ruthven Museums Building. Not marked as historical artifacts, they blend in with plastic models that have followed the Blaschkas’ lead in illustrating systematic biology.
The Museum of Vitreous Ecology exhibits all remaining glass models not on permanent display. In their fragmented state, these objects no longer capture the physiological complexity of marine invertebrates toward which the Blaschkas’ exhaustively strove. Instead, transformed into witnesses of the history of science and collecting at the University of Michigan and beyond, these fragments open up new elusive worlds. Enter The Museum of Vitreous Ecology: an aquarium of the novel life forms that emerge from the fragile enterprise of biological representation and the inevitable decay of old technologies of research.
The exhibition has been made possible by a grant from the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. We also thank the University of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History for allowing us to exhibit the collection of Blaschka glass models; the Rakow Research Library of the Corning Museum of Glass for its permission to reproduce a number of original drawings and aquarelles by Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka; and Carolyn Gennari, MFA student at the School of Art and Design, for her assistance.
Kerstin Barndt, Associate Professor of German and Museum Studies
Alice Goff, Assistant Professor,
Department of History and Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures,
Postdoctoral Fellow, Society of Fellows, University of Michigan