February 18, 2009

The Creatures in the Closet

In a detective story featuring P.T. Barnum, a flood, a fire and an enterprising art historian, invaluable glasswork makes its way back home to Tufts

By Helene Ragovin

Call it “The Case of the Missing Mollusks.”

It’s a detective story that involves century-old treasures, a dusty letter buried in the Tufts archives, P.T. Barnum, a flood, a fire and an enterprising art historian.

Click on the play button to see a slideshow of the glass sea creatures created in the late 19th century by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, which are on display at Tisch library until March 11. Photos: Alonso Nichols

The treasures are a collection of some two dozen glass models of invertebrate sea creatures. Fashioned painstakingly by hand in the late 19th century by a father-and-son team of artisans in Dresden, Germany, the intricate figures were once a state-of-the-art teaching tool for biology professors. Tufts owned a set, provided by its early benefactor, P.T. Barnum.

With the advent of new technologies, the glass sea creatures became less useful in the science classroom, and they eventually disappeared from the scene—literally. By the late 20th century, though, the marine figures were the object of a newfound appreciation as works of art. But Tufts’ collection had, to all appearances, vanished. The assumption was that they must have been destroyed in the catastrophic 1975 fire at Barnum Hall—the same fire that claimed the preserved hide of the Tufts mascot, Jumbo the elephant.

Enter Andrew McClellan, professor of art history and dean of academic affairs for Arts and Sciences. While researching an upcoming book on Jumbo in the Tufts archives, McClellan came across a letter written in 1965 by Russell Carpenter, then-curator of specimens in Barnum Hall, to the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York, asking if the museum would take some of the sea creatures for safekeeping.

“They had ceased to be useful for teaching purposes,” says McClellan. “They were recognized to be of historical interest, but we didn’t have any place to display them or keep them properly. The Tufts curator thought, ‘what better place to send them than to a glass museum?’ Corning agreed to take the objects on loan, and so there they remained.

“When I came across the letter, no one at Tufts had any recollection of the transaction,” McClellan adds.

So McClellan contacted Corning. In the years since 1965, the museum had had its own disaster—a flood damaged a substantial part of the museum’s collection and documentation in 1972—and officials there weren’t optimistic about retrieving the long-lost models.

“But sure enough, they did locate our specimens,” McClellan says. “And not only did they agree to return them to us, they offered to restore them fully, and their conservator personally drove down to Tufts in December 2007 to hand-deliver them to us, all nicely restored. It was rather an exciting moment.”

“It’s one of those quirks of fate that they escaped two major disasters in the last 40-some years,” says Stephen Koob, the conservator from Corning. “Hopefully they are in a good enough state now to survive many, many more years.”

The sea creatures that were returned from Corning—along with the rest of the Tufts collection, which, in serendipitous fashion, surfaced last year in a supply cabinet in the Dana Laboratory building—will be on display in the main lobby of Tisch Library until March 11. Following that, they will be in the archives.

Mail Order for Barnum

The models were made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, who are famous in the Boston area for creating the collection of glass flowers housed at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. But before they branched into botany, the Blaschkas were internationally known for their models of marine invertebrates.

“They were made with stunning verisimilitude,” says McClellan. “The degree of lifelikeness they achieved in glass was astonishing to their contemporaries.”

At the time, there was no way to preserve soft-bodied marine animals—creatures like snails, squids, jellyfish—for any length of time for study in the classroom or lab. Leopold Blaschka, trained in the art of jewelry- and ornament-making, was also a devotee of natural history, and in the 1860s he turned his considerable skill in glasswork first toward creating marine creatures and then flowers. His son Rudolf studied marine biology, zoology and anatomy, and by the 1880s, they had a catalog full of scientifically accurate and eye-catching models for sale.

“It is most interesting to see the quality of their work, as it was literally just the father and son who made these models, and they made thousands of them,” says Koob. In the late 1800s, they were sold by mail order and shipped all over the world, “which in itself was a challenge, because they are made of glass and are extremely fragile,” he says.

The Tufts models were purchased by Barnum, who had agreed to fund and stock a museum of natural history at Tufts, McClellan says. Most of the specimens in the museum were deceased animals from Barnum’s circus. “But Barnum wanted it to be a complete and useful teaching collection,” he says. “That’s where the Blaschka family comes in.”

Survival of the Fittest

“I love that we have been able to claim back a part of Tufts history,” says Anne Sauer, the university’s director of digital collections and archives. “When you think of all the things that were lost in the fire at Barnum, there’s very little that survives from when Barnum was still a museum. And these incredibly delicate things, the last things you would expect to survive, have made it back.”

Yet after more than 40 years in storage in Corning, and many more years before that at Tufts, time and wear had taken their toll on the marine models.

“Because they were so fragile, and very brittle, they were susceptible to damage,” says Koob. The models were cold assembled—the Blaschkas would make the main body of the creature, and then make appendages such as fins or tentacles, also out of glass, which would be attached with glue.

“The glues were very basic,” Koob says. “It was all natural material, because there was no synthetic at the time—animal glue, fish glue, rabbit-skin glue. And those adhesives get extremely brittle over time, almost as brittle as glass. They shrink, turn darker, there is some natural deterioration caused by age and light. So bits fall off, sometimes even with really no movement whatsoever. It’s just inherent in the nature of the pieces.”

The models were also painted by the Blaschkas. “Dust and dirt tends to cling to painted surfaces,” Koob says. “It’s risky to clean them with anything except a dry brush. Water would dissolve the glue and smudge the paint, and other solvents can do just as much damage, so generally dry-brush cleaning is the best approach.”

Koob donated his time and expertise to clean and restore the Tufts pieces, both those found in Corning and those later discovered in Dana Lab.

“It was incredibly generous of him,” says Sauer. Koob is one of the few conservators in the world with experience in restoring Blaschka models. “His work has made a world of difference.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.  

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