Glass Marine Invertebrates on Rare Display at Mystic Seaport Museum

A glass musky octopus, owned by the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University (Mark Lender).

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Valerie points at the bottom, gesture and facial expression behind the swim mask saying, “Look! Quick!” 

It’s that Swiss graphic design training, the ability to see a certain way, to pick out patterns. Important, because there below us in perfect camouflage against the fans and sponges is a Caribbean reef octopus — the first one we have ever seen.

I dive. The octopus flares: Red! Anger! Warning! I back off, the color changes rapidly from ultramarine blue to oranges and yellows, then back to the multihued pattern of hiding. Swimming to the surface, I blow the salt water out of my snorkel, catch my breath. 

Dive again. This time I keep my distance, unmoving, to convey as much as I can that I am no threat. The octopus is also still, studying me as much as I am studying her. Each of us is in thrall of the other. 

Now decades later here I am again, face to face with an octopus. The arms are proportionately smaller, body tiny by comparison to the first, and overall a sort of reddish brown. This one also has me in his sights. The eyes are well practiced; they have been following everyone who comes for more than 100 years. The octopus is made of glass, but if you saw him on the ocean floor against a backdrop of coral sand, you would believe it was alive. Such is the skill of the makers. 

Leopold Blaschka began fabricating marine invertebrates from blown glass in 1865. The models were painted by hand to enhance the biological accuracy already there in the form. Intended as educational aids, their beauty was immediately recognizable and, no doubt, intentional. 

Baschka glass marine animals shown above are the property of Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

Blaschka loved nature on many levels. In the middle to late 19th century, revolutionary approaches to art and science were in the air, and there was a general awareness of an interdigitation between the two. The splatter-like technique Blaschka used to apply color can be found in the Pointillism of Georges Seurat, who in turn was influenced by 19th-century scientific studies in color perception. Everyone was interested in everything — great things happened. 

Blaschka brought his son Rudolph into the business and into the tradition. Together, they made sea squirts and anemones, squid, and an incredible array of jellyfish. Working from life in the field, making their own drawings — they never used a camera —  importing live specimens which they kept in their own small aquariums, they did what no one has done before nor since.

At Harvard University, none other than Louis Agassiz began ordering glass invertebrate models from Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, the Blaschkas’ dealer in the United States, in the1870s. Agassiz was a great believer in public education. The Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, which Agassiz founded, still owns the largest single collection. 

Corning Museum of Glass and the Boston Museum of Science are the other major repositories, but few of the works are displayed at any of these institutions at one time. Owing to their profound fragility, the glass invertebrates are seldom lent out on exhibition. 

“Spineless, A Glass Menagerie of Blashka Marine Invertebrates,” at the Mystic Seaport Museum through September, is a rare opportunity to see a portion of this extraordinary work. Krystal Rose, the curator of the exhibition has done an impeccable job, and the glass models are wonderfully and elegantly displayed. Be sure to see it.