Glass Flowers and Ethnic Art at Harvard

Harvard University is known for the superb collections in the Harvard Art Museums, a combination of three former museums, where Italian early-Renaissance masterpieces, European Impressionists and Expressionists join Chinese jade and bronze treasures under one roof.

But another museum complex on the campus showcases some very different art masterpieces and in some surprising mediums.  Foremost of these is the breathtaking collection of glass flowers – amazingly realistic replicas made of blown and fused glass. The artistry is so fine and the coloring so lifelike that it is hard to believe some are not real flowers. The method has never been duplicated and the secret died with the artists.

The glass flowers are part of the university’s vast research collections in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, on Oxford Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The nearly 3,000 models of 780 species of flowers and plants were created between 1887 and 1936 by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a father and son descended from a long line of Czech glass artists.

The Blaschkas’ studio was in Hosterwitz, Germany, on the outskirts of Dresden. Using their own techniques and their long heritage of glassmaking, the Blaschkas had created delicate and lifelike sea creatures — jellyfish, sea anemones and other marine life that captured the fluidity and ephemeral nature of the live invertebrates drifting in the water.

They made these for museums all over the world, and Professor George L. Goodale, director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum, realized that such models could be the answer to his quandary of how to show flowers and plants for display and study. Dried or pressed flowers did not truly represent their shapes and colors, and those made of wax were unrealistic. Drawings and paintings couldn’t represent them in three dimensions.

Goodale visited the Blaschkas in Germany in 1886 and convinced them to make some sample flowers for the museum. When the first samples arrived the following year, Goodale saw that these were exactly what he had envisioned, and with the support of whaling fortune heirs Mary L. and Elizabeth Ware, Goodale contracted with the Blaschkas to devote their work entirely to this project.

It would take half a century. Leopold died in 1895, at which time three-fourths of the models had been completed. It wasn’t until 1936 that Rudolf, almost 80 years old, completed the final flowers. Rudolf did not have apprentices, and never revealed the secret of how they were made.

Along with the flowers in actual size are botanical details of different parts, some of them enlarged for better study. They are made entirely of glass, some using colored glass and others covered in a thin layer of colored glass or metal powders fused by heat. Larger flowers are supported by metal wires hidden inside to maintain their natural shapes.

But what appeals to most of the more than 100,000 people who visit the Glass Flowers Collection annually is their sheer beauty and artistry. Even if they were not meticulous representations of each bloom and leaf, they would stand up artistically beside works of the foremost contemporary glass artists.

The adjoining Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (the buildings connect, and admission includes both) focuses on the growth and evolution of societies, and its exhibits include examples of the artistry of cultures from Native Americans to the peoples of the Pacific Islands.

While the interpretive materials focus on the cultural significance of the items displayed, they also discuss the artistic methods and the origins of the designs. With or without the cultural background, the exhibits at the Peabody open up a world of art that’s rarely found in art museums, showing works from as far back as Iron Age metalwork and as recent as contemporary Day of the Dead objects from Mexico.

The collections are especially strong in Native American exhibits, which show artifacts and art interpreted as part of a living culture, even though some of those cultures have vanished. Exquisite examples of Native American arts include Inuit sculpture, Paiute and Shoshone baskets, Navajo rugs, Klamath and Nez Perce textiles, intricate bead and quill embroidery, Cherokee baskets and pottery, Seminole textiles, and pottery from the Southwest.

Much of the museum’s holdings from the Northwest were collected by Lewis and Clark on their expedition of 1803 to 1806, the first look people in the East had of the peoples of the American West. Along with the artifacts, the museum has the paintings and drawings by artists who traveled and lived among the native peoples and recorded their daily life, dress and customs. These include works by George Catlin, Charles Bird King, Seth Eastman and the even earlier watercolors of the Acolapissa peoples in Louisiana painted in 1732 by Alexandre De Batz.

Exhibits covering various periods and peoples also illustrate how their arts changed as Europeans provided a new market for their goods. Contact with Europeans expanded the materials available, such as glass beads to replace or supplement quill embroidery. New materials allowed artists to expand their techniques and represent their traditional motifs and designs in new ways.

Exhibits at the Peabody feature the arts of Central America: Aztec figurines, woven textiles from Guatemala, intricately appliqued molas from Panama’s San Blas islands, carved and painted masks from Guatemala, and modern Mexican folk art. Inka and Chimu metalwork and Amazonian feather work are part of the South American collections and the African cultures are represented by masks, ceramics, textiles, baskets, and ritual objects, as well as Benin bronzes, exquisite beadwork from South Africa, Tuareg jewelry and embroidered Kuba cloth.

Asian collections feature 19th-century Japanese prints, jewels from late Imperial China, Japanese ceramics and samurai armor, Neolithic painted funerary urns from China, and Kachin and Shan textiles from India.

Another area where the Peabody excels is in its collections from Oceania — the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia. Much of this was collected by Boston traders, explorers, whalers and missionaries as far back as the 18th century. Along with carved and decorated implement such as Australian aboriginal spears and shields, are bark paintings, carved bowls, woven blankets, baskets from the Philippines, Hawaiian feather capes, Ikat textiles from Indonesia, pottery and tapa cloths from Fiji, Javanese shadow puppets, Mori carved doors, and carved wood statues from Easter Island.

Only a small portion of the more than 1.2 million individual objects in the museum’s collections are shown at any time, in changing exhibits of objects curated to illuminate certain cultures or to reveal patterns and themes, such as the syncretism between different societies or the relation between mythology and art.

An ongoing exhibit, however, is “Change and Continuity”, showing the diversity of North American cultures, through the objects produced by 19th-century indigenous peoples. The exhibit examines how increasing contact with Europeans changed the native societies in various regions. Also incorporated into the exhibit are the contemporary Native American cultures.

During the current pandemic restrictions, while the museum is closed to the public, many of the exhibits and collections of the Peabody – and the other museums of the complex – are accessible online.  As part of the “Change and Continuity” exhibit, viewers can watch a video about the totem poles shown in the exhibition.

When Harvard is in session, student guides lead short tours of the museum’s highlights or those spotlighting particular objects in creative ways that often relate them to current American culture. Meanwhile, the museum’s virtual programs and tours feature the collections, using many pieces that are not on display in the museum as they examine the artistry of various cultures.

Viewers can click on objects for explanation (which is easier than reading the signs in an actual museum) of how an item is made, how it’s used, what it represented, what it tells about a culture or a time. Some of these programs include:

Embedded Nature: Tapa Cloths from the Pacific Islands

Imazighen! Beauty and Artisanship in Berber Life

Heads and Tales: Adornments from Africa 

Arts of War: Artistry in Weapons Across Cultures

Masterpieces of the Peabody Museum

Those with an interest in a particular subject can research the collections online, browsing by geographical region, then by culture and type of object to access photographs and descriptions. Granted, none of these virtual experiences quite replaces an afternoon immersed in the actual arts of another time and place, but until the museums re-open, it’s a tantalizing taste of what awaits us.

Side Dish

A few blocks away, adjoining Harvard Yard, are the Harvard Art Museums, in a building designed by Renzo Piano to house the collections of three formerly separate museums, each of which ranked high as major U.S. art museums. Now under one roof, it is a range of art that few universities can match. Fogg Art Museum collections concentrate on early-Renaissance Italian art and are rich in works of the French impressionists. The Busch-Reisinger collections specialize in central and northern European Expressionist art, including the Bauhaus school and paintings by Vasily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of Chinese jade and bronzes, Japanese prints, art of India, and Greco-Roman vases and sculptures.

While in Harvard Square, take time to browse in Harvard Bookstore, a Cambridge institution for books on all subjects, especially the arts. Also on Massachusetts Avenue, the Grafton Street Pub & Grill is a good lunch stop, or for custom-built sandwiches and divine pastries for a coffee stop, Flour Bakery is at 114 Mt Auburn Street, a block away and parallel to Massachusetts Avenue.

Club Passim is an American folk music club on the tiny Palmer Street, and another Harvard Square institution. During the pandemic, you can join their programming virtually.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History, in Cambridge, remains temporarily closed, but you can enjoy the museum at home with new digital content and virtual programs via HMSC Connects!


By Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
Europe Correspondent, Planetware
Luxury Travel Editor, BellaOnline
Features, Global Traveler Magazine

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *