In the 1860s, the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka created peerless, intricate glass replicas of marine invertebrates to supply museums and universities. When C. Drew Harvell began to restore Cornell University’s dusty and broken collection of the Blaschka figures, these near-forgotten masterpieces were given a second life. Now, Dr. Harvell is on a quest to find the living inspiration for the glass models in modern oceans.
Hundreds of intricate glass sculptures of marine invertebrates may be scientists’ best shot at discovering how ocean acidification threatens sea creatures
Leopold and son Rudolf Blaschka were 19th-century glass blowers who somehow produced perfect re-creations of sea life. Their collection of lifelike glass sea creatures were long-forgotten, until marine biologist Drew Harvell uncovered them in a New York warehouse in the late 1980s. She worked to have the sculptures cleaned up, repaired and conserved. Now, she’s attempting to photograph the real-life counterparts to the glass models, but many of the species shaped in glass during the Blaschkas’ time no longer exist.
Today, the marine models are enduring examples of a successful union between science and art, and Harvell uses them as teaching aids at Cornell. For her, they’re a source of inspiration at a crucial time for ocean conservation.
Harvell’s 25-year love affair with the Blaschka models has led her from Italy to Indonesia, resulting in her book, A Sea of Glass. Part natural history, part memoir, it recounts her attempt to assess the glass creatures in the collection and determine, as she puts it, “which of those are still present in our oceans, and how abundant they are”.
One of the more unique entries in SEJ’s 2017 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award competition was Cornell University evolutionary biologist Drew Harvell’s “A Sea of Glass,” a book that marries ocean science with art. Winner of an honorable mention, Harvell searched the world for living counterparts crafted more than 150 years ago by father-and-son glass artisans Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.