In the early 1850s, a young Czech craftsman named Leopold Blaschka lost both his wife and father in quick succession. In an attempt to find some relief for his grief, Blaschka set out on a year-long journey to the United States, hoping to indulge some of his passion for natural history. When winds becalmed his ship in the Azores for two weeks, he became fascinated with the bioluminescent jellyfish in the waters, the likes of which he had never seen before. A member of a family of glassmakers going back to 15th century Venice, it wasn’t long before he imagined creating these creatures—and other marine invertebrates that had fascinated him in the waters—out of glass.
By the end of the 19th century, Leopold and his son Rudolf had created a thriving business in Dresden, Germany, manufacturing at least 700 types of models of marine creatures in glass, with touches of enamel, paper, and paint. The models (father and son are said to have produced over 10,000 total) served as teaching aids and often-affordable decorative curios all around the world, ending up as far away as New Zealand and India. They played into the era’s fascination with natural history, and provided a way to see forms of life impossible to preserve in taxidermy, tricky to capture as wet specimens, and generally inaccessible at the time in their natural habitat.
As lifelike as they were, the models were eventually forgotten after photography and video came on the scene, as Allison Meier notes for Hyperallergic. Many languished in storage, including 500 that Cornell University purchased in 1885. After being rescued from storage in the 1960s, the Cornell models were painstakingly restored, a process that took decades. Now, about 70 of them, alongside intricate preparatory drawing and original tools, are on display at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.
The models in Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka serve multiple purposes: they are objects of beauty, testament to incredible craftsmanship, and a time capsule of marine diversity now in peril. On the latter note, the exhibit also includes a documentary by filmmaker David Owen Brown (narrated by Ted Danson) that tells the story of the models and ties them to the urgent need for ocean conservation. It’s also an excellent chance to gaze at some of the rippling, translucent, glowing creatures that first enchanted Leopold Blaschka. You can watch a trailer for the film below; the exhibit at the Corning Museum of Glass is on view until January 8, 2017.
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