Return of the Mollusks
Lost treasures of nineteenth-century glasswork have found their way back from oblivion
Late in life, P.T. Barnum, the showman and frequent Tufts benefactor, donated
to the university two dozen glass models of marine invertebrates. Handcrafted
by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka—the German father and son team who made Harvard’s
famous Glass Flowers collection—the specimens were lifelike in the extreme.
The Blaschkas fashioned all the parts themselves, attached every tiny tentacle
or filament with glue, and painstakingly applied paint. Then they sold the
models to biology classrooms around the world. By nineteenth-century standards,
their work was state of the art.
But the state of the art changed. Science found ways to preserve real squids, jellyfish, and their soft-bodied ilk, and glass replicas fell out of fashion. Eventually, Tufts’ collection was lost—incinerated in the fire that destroyed Barnum Hall in 1975. Or so everyone thought.
Enter Andrew McClellan, professor of art history and dean of academic affairs for Arts and Sciences. While researching a 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. It was addressed to the Corning Museum of Glass, in upstate New York. Would the museum please take some of the sea creatures on loan, for safekeeping, the letter asked. “When I came across the letter, no one at Tufts had any recollection of the transaction,” says McClellan.
Crossing his fingers, McClellan called Corning. The museum’s response was cordial but not encouraging. In the years since 1965, the museum had had its own disaster, a flood that damaged much of its collection and documentation. The long-lost models would have had little hope of surviving.
But soon there was good news: not only had the specimens survived, but the museum’s conservator, Stephen Koob, had volunteered to restore them. Koob drove down to Tufts in December 2007 to hand-deliver the sparkling, refurbished set. “It was rather an exciting moment,” says McClellan.
The sea creatures from Corning—along with the rest of the Tufts collection, which, in serendipitous fashion, surfaced in 2008 in a supply cabinet in the Dana Laboratory building—went on display at Tisch Library before being retired to the safety of the archives. Alonso Nichols, a prize-winning staff photographer at Tufts, has documented the Blaschka collection in a series of close-ups, including the ones we show here.