A Blaschka Renaissance

David Owen Brown works worldwide as a producer, videographer, photographer and lecturer specializing in wildlife, environmental and water topics. In 2014-2015, he produced, wrote and directed Fragile Legacy, winner of the Best Short Film category in Monaco’s Blue Ocean Film Festival and humanitarian awards in both the Best Shorts and Global Film Awards competitions. Brown will speak at the Museum’s Annual Seminar on Glass on October 15.

David O. Brown

David O. Brown

Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka created their remarkable glass sea creatures at a pivotal time. Leopold was traveling trans-Atlantic under sail in the 1850s. Fossil fuel-powered propulsion was rapidly gaining ground, and steamships were soon to leave sailing vessels in their wake as the primary means of ocean travel. Had he taken his voyage a decade later, Leopold would likely have been aboard a steam ship, not at the mercy of the wind. His ship would not have been becalmed when the wind died, and Leopold would never have experienced the wonder of watching translucent jellyfish and other marine life floating by. Later that same decade, the first oil well struck “black gold” in Pennsylvania, and humanity collectively accelerated onto the technological path that has transformed our world, and fundamentally altered our ocean. Since the Blaschkas’ time, many essential elements of the natural world have been lost in a blur of speed, steel, concrete, and gas.

In my years of making marine conservation films, I’ve documented and shared the lives of whales, sharks, polar bears, and other “charismatic megafauna.” People pay attention when a 40-ton whale breaches, or when a toothy shark swims by onscreen. Not necessarily so in the case of squid, jellyfish, nudibranchs, or anemones. Appreciating these organisms requires slowing down, taking in the nuances of form and color that defines each species. Most people don’t care about a squid unless it’s on their plate, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out ways to interest the public in the lives of the subtle yet vital parts of the oceanic whole. The Blaschkas were not only master glass artisans, but also superb naturalists, alert to every exquisite detail of their subjects. Their immense skill in rendering these creatures in glass offers entry to the marine world via the humanities, a different approach from that conventionally taken by marine conservation filmmakers.

Photo by David O. BrownMy journey to make Fragile Legacy began while walking through the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. I had recently moved to Ithaca, New York, following many years traveling to remote ocean locations to dive and film the marine environment. It was tough moving inland, away from the sea. Imagine my delighted surprise when I looked into a museum display case and saw what appeared to be a small collection of squid, sea slugs, and sea cucumbers. They were so detailed, so lifelike, that they appeared ready to swim away. That was my first encounter with the extraordinary work of the Blaschkas, and spurred me to research everything I could find on their work. The more I read, the more convinced I became that these superbly crafted, antique glass models might be the key to attracting an entirely new audience to the cause of marine conservation.

Several weeks later, I saw a flyer for a talk about the Blaschkas by Professor Drew Harvell, a renowned marine biologist. This brilliant scientist has spent a lifetime studying marine invertebrates, with an emphasis on conserving these creatures and their habitats. Drew also curates Cornell’s Blaschka collection. The collection was acquired in 1885 as a teaching tool, to expose students to these cryptic creatures. The glass models had been extensively handled prior to falling into disuse with the advent of SCUBA, underwater film and other innovations. In the 1960s, the collection arrived at The Corning Museum of Glass as a long-term loan. Since then, they have been under careful watch by the Museum’s conservation department, which has been methodically working to conserve the collection. When Drew began working at Cornell, she saw the immense potential in using the collection as a tool for marine education and outreach. Since the 1980s, she has worked with The Corning Museum of Glass to conserve Cornell’s Blaschka models. At Drew’s lecture, I sat with Chuck Greene, a noted oceanographer and climate scientist whom I had filmed in Hawaii years before. Chuck turned out to be married to Drew, making introductions easy, and that evening saw the launch of the Fragile Legacy filming project. Five years, many miles and countless hours of filming, scripting and editing later, the first iteration of Fragile Legacy is being seen in film festivals around the world, winning awards and expanding the audience for marine conservation via the arts.

Photo by David O. Brown; http://nz.thescubanews.com/2016/08/29/fragile-legacy-diving-into-history/The 30-minute version of Fragile Legacy, made possible with grants from The Corning Foundation and The Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, is only the start. Phase II of the project, partially funded by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, is a 60-minute version of the film for broadcast, intended to inspire millions more viewers to better understand and protect our ocean. Phase III is the creation of multiple episodes for use in museum and aquarium theaters worldwide, each using Blaschka collections to interest audiences in the ocean surrounding the country in which each collection resides.

The pace of change in the ocean has accelerated steadily since the time of the Blaschkas.  My first tropical dives were in the early 1980s, on teeming Caribbean reefs built by Staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis. Today, this coral species is up to 98% gone throughout its range. The first dives for the Fragile Legacy project were in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, former home to the greatest diversity of sea stars on earth. That was in 2012, and in the few years since then, we’ve seen entire populations of sea stars, from Mexico to Alaska, vanish.

The Blaschkas were instrumental in bringing the ocean to a global public that was eager to experience the mysterious creatures of the marine world. Not only did the father and son produce an astounding number of these amazing sculptures, the models were shipped all over the world, providing people from Australia to the Americas and New Zealand to Scandinavia a chance to marvel at these creations. Blaschka collections are known to exist in 21 different countries.

Leopold and Rudolf could not have imagined today’s ocean, nor that their work might someday be needed to rally people around a sea in distress. That is the objective of the Fragile Legacy project—to document, unite and activate Blaschka collections everywhere, employing these masterpieces from another time to inspire action to protect our timeless sea.


Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf BlaschkaFragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka is on view at The Corning Museum of Glass through January 8, 2017. Learn more about the exhibition.

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