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Boston: The Glass Flowers

In our series highlighting unique or unusual attractions, we have selected the "Glass Flowers" as a particularly noteworthy exhibit in the Boston area.

When you are in the Boston area, consider taking a side trip to Harvard University and its fine collection of affiliated museums in nearby Cambridge. The Harvard Museum of Natural History is especially appealing to children. It’s technically a series of separate museums housed under one roof, spanning comparative zoology, mineralogy, geology and botany. A sister institution, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, also shares space in the same building. Think of this complex as a smaller-scale version of New York’s own Museum of Natural History.

The botanical section is particularly noteworthy because it contains an exhibit that is genuinely unique. The full name of this exhibit is “The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants.” Most people simply call it, “The Glass Flowers.”

Professor George Lincoln Goodale founded the Harvard Botanical Museum in the mid-19th century. He wanted to develop lifelike models of plants for his lectures -- models that would be significantly better than the rather crude papier-mâché or wax versions that were used in those years. Eventually, he concluded that fashioning models out of glass was the way to go and decided that the firm of Leopold Blaschka near Dresden, Germany was most qualified to execute his vision. The Blaschka family had been noted as fine jewelers and glassmakers for several centuries. The Ware family, who financed the effort, provided the final element of the equation.

Leopold Blaschka began work in 1886. His son Rudolph completed the project exactly 5 decades later, in 1936. Their monumental effort produced over 3,000 models, representing 847 species of plants. The models include life-sized replicas, magnified cross-sections and enlarged plant parts. Some models illustrate insect pollination, plant diseases and reproductive cycles. All are astonishing in their level of detail and realism. All are breathtakingly beautiful. They transcend science and reach the plateau of fine art.

The Blaschkas employed a variety of methods to produce this great body of work. Some models were of blown glass, while others were shaped. Some were fashioned of colored glass, and others were made of clear glass that was later fused, under heat, with ground colored glass or metal oxides. In most models, the glass was fashioned around an internal wire support.

These masterpieces are highly fragile, and a number have fractured over the years, sometimes merely from decades of small vibrations caused by visitors’ footsteps (about 120,000 people view the models annually). In other cases, a loud truck on the street or plane overhead has broken a model all at once. Ultraviolet light filtering through the museum’s windows is another cause of deterioration. Accordingly, the museum has launched a major conservation effort that is cleaning and repairing the models (where needed), then reinstalling them in modern display cases that afford much better protection. Happily for visitors, though, this project proceeds in stages with only a small proportion of the glass flowers taken off display at any one time. This collection is a lesser-known national treasure in which the whole family can take much delight.

Travel Tips
  • The Harvard Museum of Natural History is at 26 Oxford St., Cambridge, MA 02138.
  • The Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, at 11 Divinity Ave., provides a rear entrance. The museums are connected and have the same hours. One admission price gets you into both, and both observe the same times for free admission.
  • By public transit, take the Red Line subway (known locally as the “T”) to Harvard Square, then walk north through the Harvard Yard, a stroll of 10-15 minutes.
  • If you come by car, parking is mainly limited to on-street, metered spaces.

Where to Learn More

What to Budget
The following prices are for admission to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, where the Glass Flowers are on display.
  • Adults $7.50
  • Non-Harvard Students with ID and Seniors $6.00
  • Kids 3-18 $5.00
The museum is free to all on Wednesdays 3-5PM (September to May) and Sundays 9AM-noon (year round). Discounted rates apply for group tours (reserve in advance).
The Harvard Hot Ticket ($10 for adults, $8 for college students and seniors) includes all 6 Harvard museums and is valid up to a year from purchase. The Boston City Pass also includes the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Travel Guides and More

When to Go
The museum is open daily 9-5 except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.

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