"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard..."
excerpted from the poem 'Silence' by Marianne Moore
There are many wonders of the world which I will most probably never have the opportunity to see. The Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt. Not all wonders of the world are as large and prominent as these and some are closer to home than you might think. So it is with the Glass Flower Collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, (HMNH), in Cambridge, MA. An exquisite and one of a kind collection of blown glass comprised of anatomically correct flowers complete with their various private parts and cross sections. There are pistils and stamens along with ovaries, pollen, and even some pollinators caught in the act or the clutches. How can one resist such an exhibit? It has beauty, sex, and historical significance. My excuse is ignorance which I have remedied. I resisted visiting the collection for quite a while. I had seen those glass flowers tucked in a vase in the gift shops and those were not for me. A gardener, plant lover and trained horticulturist, I am embarrassed to say that I did not research, before dismissing, the 'Glass Flower Collection'. I should have heard 'at Harvard' at the end of the description and realized the import of the exhibit. It just takes some of us a little longer to see, really see, that which is right in front of us, 'Superior people' or not. The glass flowers were commissioned by Dr. George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of HMNH appointed in 1888 and as such, he wanted to exhibit plant specimens. Plant specimens for study in the late 1800's consisted of wax or paper mache neither of which had much longevity or detail. Dr. Goodale had seen marine specimens made out of glass by German glassblowers, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. This father and son team were as much artists as technical glassblowers and at the time of Dr. Goodall's visit they were making a living creating sea creatures which were unique, detailed, and instructive. A bit of arm twisting ensued which resulted in a collection of over 4000 models which includes 847 life size models of different plant species and their various plant parts. The production of the specimens spanned a quarter of a century and only came to an end due to the death of one and the age of the other artisan. The collection was funded over this period of time by Mrs. Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter, Mary Lee Ware in memory of Dr. Charles E. Ware, husband, father, and Harvard alumnus. There is much about the collection, other than its ethereal and exacting beauty, which is of interest. Packaging of the glass which had to travel from Germany to Boston, MA, was initially a challenge. The packaging was a marvel of engineering. There was no styrofoam in 1887 when the first flowers were shipped. Straw and tissue paper helped encase the pieces and improvements were made in the packaging and transport after the first shipment arrived quite damaged but beautiful still. At one point pieces of the collection were sent by hearse to be part of a 1976 Steuben Glass Company Exhibit in New York city. It seems that a hearse had the best suspension of any vehicle available at that time. Some specimens sent for an exhibit were lost in a flood at the Corning Glass Museum Exhibit in Corning, NY in 1972 which also resulted in much damage and destruction at that museum. Much more concerning the history of the collection can be read on the HMNH website but nothing there can describe each individuals reaction to the exhibit. For those of us who grow plants and have grown many of those in the exhibit, the reaction is one of wonder, familiarity, and awe. The fragile tendrils and intricate flowers of the twining sweet pea are replicated in exacting detail. The fragrance of sweet peas was brought to mind while viewing this specimen but, alas, it was just an olfactory illusion. The pollen collected on the aging catkins of the pussy willow looks just as if it would stain your fingers and clothing if picked but it is just a magic act and one well employed by the skills of the artisans Blaschka. The color of the swamp maple leaves match the color of the spring flowers which is a good lesson in botany since they are not seen at the same time except in this specimen form. Mountain laurel is a native in New England and is rendered in glass with painstaking detail.
It is a welcome sight when it blooms in late spring in this area. It is forever blooming behind the glass doors of the exhibit room.
From honeysuckle orange to iris blue
the color spectrum is covered in this exhibit as well as these plant species. Every visitor to this exhibit will find at least one specimen which is familiar.
I offer you this fothergilla flower to view next to the exhibit flower. One is soft to the touch, the other would be cold and hard if one could touch it. It has been a very long winter here in New England and in many other parts of the country but at the Glass Flower Exhibit, the dogwoods are eternally blooming along with many plants of summer and fall.
Should you be as starved for greenery and blooms as I, this exhibit will not disappoint you. It is a flower show where the blooms never fade. It is a marriage of art and science. It is one of a kind. The Ware collection of glass flowers is close to home if you live in New England and compared to visiting the Taj Mahal it requires little travel effort. Have you been to see the Glass Flower Exhibit? If not, when will you go? You are one of the 'Superior people', I know you are.