MYSTIC – A new exhibit at the Mystic Seaport Museum features the glass artwork of the Blaschka family of Dresden, Germany, who created numerous figures of underwater invertebrates in the latter part of the 19th century.
The exhibit, which opened Saturday in the C.D. Mallory Building on the north end of the museum grounds, includes dozens of Blaschka masterworks of squid, octopuses, sea anemones, sea cucumbers, and several land invertebrates like snails and slugs.
Led by the family patriarch, Leopold Blaschka, the Blaschka glass shop has been renowned for its glass flowers, but in the past several decades there has been a resurging awareness for Blaschka’s work on invertebrates, particularly marine invertebrates, according to curator Krystal Rose.
“It wasn’t until 20 some years ago that people started realizing they existed and were something special,” Rose said. “They were in many institutions because they were used for teaching purposes. They were in pretty bad shape and broken. So they were put in boxes and put away.”
However, people began revisiting the glass pieces and viewing them as artistic objects.
“People are looking back at these invertebrate models and seeing they’re special,” Rose said.
The inspiration for the exhibit started with museum Senior Vice President Christina Brophy, she said, who always loved Blaschka’s models.
After visits to the Corning Museum of Glass and Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, which has hundreds of Blaschka’s works, Mystic Seaport Museum was able to gather a collection mostly on loan from Harvard for the exhibition, Rose said.
In order to fit the museum’s maritime theme, the exhibit centers around the history of marine science and stories from sailors who went on expeditions — like the HMS Challenger, which went on a four-year oceanographic voyage studying the ocean and marine life.
It was on a trans-Atlantic voyage when Leopold Blaschka was first inspired to start creating glass invertebrates in 1853, Rose said. He broached the idea with his son, Rudolf, and they began producing glass models of jellyfish. It wasn’t until 1863 that the first piece, of a sea anemone, was complete. Their work continued through the 1870s and 1880s before stopping to focus on flower glass work.
At the height of production, Rose said, the Blaschkas had a catalog with about 700 different glass invertebrate models for sale.
With Dresden located hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline, the family would use drawings by scientists of the time — like Phillip Henry Gosse and Ernst Haeckel — as inspiration, Rose said, as well as having specimens both alive and dead shipped to their studio.
The models were created in pieces, Rose added, through a method of glassblowing called lampworking, where a torch or lamp is used to melt and mold the glass. The pieces were then assembled into the finished product.
“A lot of times, they assembled models like assembly lines,” she said, with smaller pieces like suckers being attached to the tentacles of an octopus.
For Rose, the Blaschka exhibit is one of her favorites she’s worked on.
“I love marine science,” she said. “I love marine invertebrates. I always have. To be able to bring to life something that I’m personally passionate and interested in, it means a lot to me.”