The Glass Flowers

by

The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants

INTRODUCTION

I’m approaching the Glass Flowers as a study of a thing that presents itself somewhat explicitly as an object of our attention. Rather than attempting to cultivate an attention to everyday things whose thingness eludes us (e.g. Heidegger’s jug, Bill Brown’s window, Latour’s door), I instead want to think about how we attend to things whose thingness we might feel is already immediately available. This study tries to be less about seeing a thing as something other than an object of our use and more about seeing something more in that very quality of objecthood. The objecthood of the Glass Flowers is made explicit in their status as objects of our use as instructional tools, objects of our contemplation as works of art, and objects of representational practice as things that forefront the fact that they represent other things (“natural” flowers). I want to tell three parts of the story of the Glass Flowers as objects.

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Although [the Glass Flowers] are representations themselves, they defy representation. A photograph of the glass model of a daylily or a strawberry plant looks exactly like a photograph of the daylily or strawberry plant in your garden…. It is the wonder of the copy that itself cannot be copied, which somehow is more authentic than the original.
–Lorraine Daston, ”The Glass Flowers”

The Glass Flowers, officially known as the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, are a set of approximately 3,000 life-size models of plants made out of glass, with occasional bits of wire, paint, and glue. The collection is owed by Harvard University, where the models are on disply in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of the Harvard Botanical Museum, commissioned the models in 1886 from Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, a father and son team of glassmakers based in Hosterwitz, near Dresden. The Blaschkas produced the models over 50 years, Leopold until his death in 1895 and Rudolph until his retirement at age 79 in 1936.

TYPE

MusaParadisiacamusa paradisiaca191580mp Picture 1mp Picture 2

fig. 1, upper left: Musa paradisiaca – “in nature”
fig. 2, upper right: Musa paradisiaca – herbarium specimen
fig. 3, lower left: Musa paradisiaca – drawing by Rudolph Blaschka
fig. 4, lower right: Musa paradisiaca - glass model by Rudolph Blaschka

The first part of this story concerns the concept of type. Goodale’s commission of the Glass Flowers was motivated by a desire for adaquate instructional tools. There was a problem of access–students in Cambridge simply did not have access to the majority of the plant world, especially not plants in their natural settings (fig. 1, above). Existing models made of wax or paper mache as well as dried plant specimens (fig. 2) were felt to be insufficient for teaching students to recognize plants in their natural settings. At the same time, even fresh plant specimens could not entirely satisfy Goodale’s pedagogical desires, for any given specimen seemed by itself too specific to stand for an entire species of plant. When Goodale turned to the Blaschkas, he charged them with producing “exact fac-similes of certain typical plants” (Daston 2004: 249). In taking up this charge, the Blaschkas’ research was based on plants they grew in their own garden from seeds sent by Harvard botanists, plants in the nearby royal gardens in Pillnitz, and drawings Rudolph made during two research expeditions to the US and the Caribbean (fig. 3).

But what does it mean to copy a “typical plant”? If these glass flowers are models, what exactly are they models of? On the one hand, working at this level of detail, the Blaschkas clearly couldn’t simply model a glass flower on a general idea of what a given species of plant looked like–there had to be specific referents. On the other hand, Goodale explicitly did not want a one-to-one correlation between each glass model and a plant specimen existing in the world. Each Blaschka model had to represent a species, not a single specimen.

Looking at the way that the concept of type has operated in botany offers something with which to think. The type method, officially adopted for botanical work in 1910, fixed each species name to an individual specimen of that species. Yet there remained a recognition that no individual specimen could be definitively typical of a species. A specimen can be a type, but it’s harder to say that it can be typical. In Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison write of the interplay between truth-to-nature and objectivity in the rise of modern science. Botany’s type method is an example of an approach governed by objectivity–names are tied to actually existing objects in the world. Truth-to-nature, in contrast, dictates an interest in “the idea in the observation, not the raw observation itself” (Daston and Galison 2007: 73). This approach, whose persistence in botany is indicated by the relatively recent adoption of the type method, asserts a truth to what a thing is that can’t be fully captured by any single example of the thing. Goodale’s desire for “exact fac-similes of certain typical plants” suggests a desire for truth-to-nature, for glass models of the truth of things more than of specific things themselves.

This discussion of the concept of type prompts me to touch upon the tendency to talk about a thing in generic terms–when we talk about a thing, we tend to talk about a typified thing, we talk about a jug as if it constitutes the entirety of jugness–while talking about humans in specific and individual terms. This tendency confronts us as a way in which we persist in taking up human and non-human worlds on radically different terms. We persist in standardizing the variability of the non-human world, as emerges in the botanical examples of the type method and Goodale’s pedagogical desires as attempts to put into order the seeming excesses of nature.

Type also leads me to representation. Daston tells of a remark made by Harvard botanist William Farlow to a colleague about a visitor to the collection who “told me she could not imagine anything so beautiful as the models. I ventured to ask whether she did not think the plants themselves were beautiful” (Daston 2004: 250). This remark illustrates a point often made, that representation doesn’t merely represent a thing, it also replaces that thing by constituting a new thing. Yet we can maybe say a bit more about what representation does. Namely, we can ask of a thing that represents what it does and even what it wants–we can’t simply dismiss it as a thing that merely represents. There is nothing mere about representation. Maybe by addressing the idea of representation we can more clearly recognize the ways that meaning is still so much a part of our discussion of doing and being, and that it’s not the case that we wouldn’t want it to be.

WONDER

The second part of this story is about the wonderment that surrounds the flowers. It’s a wonderment that I don’t want to dispel. One way that this wonderment appears is in the form of disbelief at the process by which the Glass Flowers come into being. Theories of a secret technique employed by the Blaschkas are an integral part of this story. Even people who observed the Blaschkas at work, including Goodale, struggled to account for what they saw. Goodale managed this: “Although you may see him touch a flat piece of glass with his little metallic tools, you know that it is no ordinary touch which suddenly shapes it into a living form.” (Brown 1999). What he knew just didn’t seem sufficient for what these flowers were. There’s a sense that emerges here of an excess in what these flowers are beyond that which can be accounted for by a knowledge of how they are made. It’s an excess that can’t be reduced to an inability to grasp the technical process of manufacture. Here I want to depart from Alfred Gell’s discussion of the technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology, by which we construe objects as magical as a result of our inability to understand the technical processes by which they are made (Gell 1992: 49). It’s precisely the accessibility of the technical process that highlights the excess that remains beyond it.

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Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact.
–Leopold Blaschka

Another place where the wonderment surrounding the flowers appears is in the experience of viewing them on display. This sense of wonder emerges from a play between seeing and not seeing that these flowers are made of glass. On the one hand, what’s amazing is that they look indistinguishable from natural flowers, not at all like glass. On the other hand, subtle gestures towards their material–perhaps a momentary gleam as you shift your viewing angle–contribute to an aesthetic appreciation for these flowers as not “just” natural flowers. Viewers are held in wonder, in part at least, by their minds’ play between knowing and not knowing what they are seeing.

The wonder emerges as well from the odd feeling one gets at encountering these flowers on display in rows of cabinets in a dimly lit museum hall. It’s not only that the setting strikes viewers as so unfitting for objects that seem to want to reside outdoors, attached to the ground or trees. The flowers seem also to be locked in an unaccustomed temporality–they have no past or future as flowers, they neither grow nor decay as flowers, only as pieces of glass. The Glass Flowers are simultaneously the perfect flowers and not flowers at all. If the wonder surrounding the flowers’ manufacture can be described in terms of an excess, the wonder surrounding their display seems might be described in terms of multiplicity, the multiplicity of realities the flowers enact for their viewers.

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To see the flowers now made of glass, lying down on their sides, in their display cabinets, so accurate, so pristine, so without blemish, is to be in a state of wonderment. For in the end, they do not look like perfect flowers on the stems of perfect branches adorned with perfect leaves growing from perfect plants. They look real enough but as if the real is from another realm.
–Jamaica Kincaid, “Splendor in the Glass”

In taking up the idea of wonder, I’m hoping to speak to Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell’s call for a ethnographic methodology of wonder at things (Henare et al. 2007). I want to suggest that we might move towards Henare et al.’s desire to cultivate a sense of wonder at the everyday and the taken-for-granted by considering the wonder that already operates in the world without our directed attempts to produce it. The wonderment surrounding the Glass Flowers suggests that rather than thinking of wonder primarily in terms of an openess–a naivite–towards things, which can feel more disabling than enabling, we might also think of a sensibility of wonderment as carried out through a recognition of the complexity of things, a complexity that emerges in the case of the Glass Flowers in terms of their excess and their enactment of multiplicity. Perhaps this offers us a way of thinking about a methodology of wonder as a more active practice than the idiom of naivite suggests.

CARE

The third part of the story is a story of obsessiveness. It’s about the obsessive care and attention that the Glass Flowers gather around themselves. There’s of course the obsessiveness of the two men who spent 50 years of their lives under exclusive contract to do nothing with their working hours except produce these flowers. But there are other elements to this story of obsessive care and attention as well.

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These people were obsessive. Not only did the Blaschkas make all 2,500 of those buds and blossoms, you have Walter Deane over here counting them.
–Susan Rossi-Wilcox, quoted in Brown 1999

Consider, for example, how the flowers made their way from the Blaschkas’ workshop in Hosterwitz, Germany to the Harvard Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
The finished model would be mounted on firm cardboard, with strong wire securing it. The mounted specimen was then placed in a sturdy cardboard box. Tissue paper was used to cushion it and keep the parts that could not readily be wired from moving…. Next, the cardboard box would be covered; and, when a number of such boxes were ready, they were all placed in a very large, sturdy wooden box with a sufficient amount of straw padding to keep the individual boxes from touching one another or the walls of the wooden box. The wooden cover was then screwed on, and the box was embedded in more straw padding before being wrapped in burlap. The finished bale, which was nearly the height of a person, was then sent to a seaport, loaded onto a ship, and transported to America. Here, the packing procedure was reversed, much care being taken in the final process of removing the models from their cardboard boxes. (Schultes and Davis 1982.)

And then there’s this anecdote about how the flowers traveled from Cambridge to New York and back for an exhibition:
The models, packed in wooden cases…, were to be flown from Boston to New York in a small plane. But the question of how they could be safely transported over the icy, potholed streets to Logan Airport in Boston and from La Guardia to Manhattan remained. What type of automobile had the best springs to give the smoothest ride? Although the obvious conclusion was the use of a limousine, test runs indicated a hearse was even better. So, one afternoon in March, two large black hearses, each with a driver in funereal dress, backed up to the doors of the museum, and the boxes were loaded. The automobiles proved to be such a perfect answer that, after a well-attended month-long showing, the models were not returned by air but were driven the 200 miles back to Cambridge in two hearses. (Schultes and Davis 1982.)

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It becomes clear that instead of just asking about the flowers as things that are human-made, we ought to ask about all the things that the flowers make humans do. “The Glass Flowers did more than crystallize labor; they multiplied it,” Daston writes (Daston 2004: 240). The flowers call upon an obsessive level of care an attention in anyone who encounters them, from the Blaschkas to the museum visitor and, crucially, everyone who encounters them in between. This quality of the Glass Flowers calls particular attention to the materiality of these objects by making people so careful about specifically their materiality. The flowers make us ask so intently what their materials are, how we can work to preserve and restore them, and how we ought to behave around them.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Brown, Nancy Marie. 1999. “Flowers Out of Glass” [article online]. Research/PennState 20.3. Accessed 17 May 2009. Available at http://www.rps.psu.edu/sep99/glass.html.
  • Daston, Lorraine. 2004. “The Glass Flowers.” In Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science. Edited by Lorraine Daston. New York: Zone Books. 223-256.
  • Daston, Lorraine and Peter Gallison. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.
  • Gell, Alfred. 1992. “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology.” In Anthropology Art and Aesthetics. Edited by Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 40-66.
  • Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell. 2007. “Introduction: Thinking Through Things.” In Thinking Through Things: Theorizing Artefacts Ethnographically. Edited by Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell London: Routledge. 1-31.
  • Kincaid, Jamaica. 2002. “Splendor in the Glass” [article online]. Architectural Digest June 2002. Accessed 17 May 2009. Available at http://www.architecturaldigest.com/resources/notebook/archive/artnotebook_article_062002.
  • Schultes, Richard Evans and William A. Davis with Hillel Burger. 1982. The Glass Flowers at Harvard. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc.
  • [photo credits: none of the photos belong to me, most come from Schultes and Davis 1982, contact me for specific information]
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  4. Blue, Cambridge MA Says:

    Thanks for this post. You’re so right that photography doesn’t do the collection justice, as the models simply look like real flowers. The photos of the Blaschka glass models are (c) Hillel Burger, President & Fellows, Harvard College. http://www.hmnh.harvard.edu. 3,000 glass models of plants are on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, on the University campus, a 6-7 minute walk from Harvard Square.

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