What do a curator, filmmaker, the oceans and Ireland all have in common? The answer is the Cornell University collection of Blaschka glass models of marine invertebrates!
Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolf (1857-1939) were glass model makers based in Dresden, Germany, during the late 19th/early 20th century. Some of these models form an integral part of the European galleries here in The Corning Museum of Glass. In the United States, the Blaschkas are famous for making the Harvard University Ware Collection of glass models of plants, whereas internationally, it is their magnificent and awe-inspiring models of marine creatures which have given them such renowned and justifiable acclaim.
For the past number of years, filmmaker David Owen Brown and Dr. Drew Harvell, Professor of Marine Biology at Cornell University, have been working together on highlighting the need for the conservation of the world’s oceans. The fact that several species depicted in glass by the Blaschkas over 150 years ago are now are now endangered has made their work all the more urgent, and timely. Brown is putting together a documentary film highlighting this important fact, and is matching real life marine invertebrates in the world’s oceans with glass models produced by the Blaschkas.
The natural science of the oceans became a popular topic during the mid-19th century. This had much to do with oceanographic expeditions such as the Royal Society’s Challenger Expedition of 1872 to 1876, as well as the craze of the aquarium and the ability to keep sea creatures in oxygenated saltwater within the home. (Learn more about this Leopold Blaschka and Rudolf Blaschka: Drawings for Glass Models of Marine Invertebrates.)
Such popularity amongst the general population led to a call to have more accurate specimens (or replicated specimens) within natural history displays at museums and universities around the world. One such example of a then newly opened natural history museum is that of Dublin in 1857, the year Rudolf Blaschka was born.
The National Museum of Ireland – Natural History museum building and exhibitions have not changed much since the late 19th century. Their Victorian style arrangement as a cabinet of curiosities can only be described as a microcosm of the 19th century, i.e. a moment frozen in time. The display of Blaschka marine invertebrate glass models in Dublin consists of approximately 300 models (out of a total collection of 530), the largest display of these glass sea creatures anywhere in the world.
The Blaschka collection of the Natural History Museum, Dublin, is extremely important in understanding how Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka themselves envisaged the way in which the general public would view their own work.
Footage filmed during the first week of June 2014 for Brown’s documentary included this collection, which represents a time capsule of biodiversity from 150 years ago. Those interviewed for the documentary in Ireland included Nigel Monaghan, the Keeper of the Natural History Division, National Museum of Ireland, and me as curator of European & Asian glass here in Corning.
In addition, Irish Sea coastal waters and their marine life were filmed around north County Dublin, in such stunning harbor locations as Loughshinny (which yielded a viridis/beaded anemone, a species depicted by the Blaschkas in glass).
Filming also took place at Europe’s most renowned megalithic passage tomb of the Neolithic period—Newgrange, dating to 3,200 BC—in order to show how humankind worked in tandem with the environment in the past, not against it.
The overall point of the documentary is to show the effects of environmental factors like climate change and the use of fossil fuels on today’s biodiversity, and to highlight effective ways of combatting the possible future extinction of marine invertebrates portrayed so accurately and beautifully by the Blaschkas all those years ago.
The short form documentary is scheduled to be released by the end of 2014, with the long form version premiering in late 2015/early 2016. For more information, see http://www.fragilelegacy.info
(With particular thanks to David Owen Brown, Drew Harvell and Nigel Monaghan)