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Antique Glass “Specimens” Get New Life

Exploring Vassar’s Artifacts: In this series, we “go to the source” to bring you objects that offer insight into what teaching, learning, and living at Vassar was like through the ages.

Lois Horst and Kate Susman place the Blaschka figures in their new home. Below, a sampling of glass jellyfish and anemones from the collection.

The exquisite glass renderings of jellyfish and other marine invertebrates that have been sitting for years in a cabinet in a hallway in Olmsted Science will soon be getting the attention they deserve.

They were crafted in the late 19th century by world-renowned German glassmakers Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka, whose fusion of art and science has never been duplicated. Soon, thanks to the efforts of the recently formed Vassar College Artifacts Project (VCAP), they will be on display at the A. Scott Warthin Museum of Geology and Natural History in Ely Hall.

Lois Horst, curator of the museum and a member of the VCAP committee, says finding an appropriate home for these priceless works of art was long overdue. They were unveiled at a reception at the museum on October 31.

“They’ll be the centerpiece of our displays and it’s a thrill to have them—they are a part of the history of science and the history of glassmaking,” Horst says.

Purchased in 1887 as teaching tools for Vassar biology students, the glass organisms were eventually pushed aside as advances in underwater photography and other technology rendered them obsolete. Twenty-three of the 39 pieces acquired by the college have been lost or destroyed over the last 125 years. But those that remain are excellent examples of the Blaschkas’ work, says Stephen Koob, chief conservator of the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. Koob repaired and restored some of Vassar’s collection in 2010.

“The Blaschkas were geniuses,” he says. “What they did required an extraordinary understanding of natural history as well as the science of glass, and nobody has been able to produce that quality of work before or since.”

The largest and perhaps the most famous collection of the Blaschkas’ work—more than 4,000 renderings of flowers and other plants—is on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. But over a 60-year span in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the father-and-son team crafted thousands of other masterpieces for numerous colleges and universities in Europe and North America.

Biology professor Kate Susman, who founded the VCAP committee along with college historian Betty Daniels ’41, says she expected the Blaschka collection to remain at the Warthin Museum until permanent space for displays on the history of science is created in Vassar’s new Integrated Science Center. Groundbreaking for the $125-million facility is scheduled for next spring.

“It’s exciting to see this part of our project (preserving the college’s artifacts) coming to fruition,” Susman says. “Priceless objects like these should be more visible on campus—they have a place in the history of teaching.”

-- Larry Hertz

Photos © Vassar College/Buck Lewis