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Fathers, sons, museums

Friends in New York City tell me that they never visit the tourist attractions – the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building – until they’re hosting guests from out of town. I’m not a Cambridge resident, nor am I ever really resident at Harvard, but I had the same experience yesterday when my friend Nate came to visit me at the Berkman Center. He dragged me across the street to visit the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology and the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

In a sense, he also dragged me back about a hundred years in time. These museums, in a sense, are a museum of museums, a memory of museums past. They remind us of when museums were places for collectors to store their objects and experts to study them, not tools to educate or entertain the public.

The central attraction of the Museum of Natural History is a collection of glass models of plants and flowers, created by Bohemian glassmakers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka in the late 19th and early 20th century. They were comissioned by a Harvard botany professor and paid for by one of his students, and ended up becoming the life’s work for Leopold and his son. The models were used to teach botany to Harvard students – the fragile models now are art objects, more than scientific curiosities.

One of the Blaschka flowers in the Harvard collection.

Leopold Blaschka began his work making glass eyes for taxidermists. His incredible skill with lampwork – heating small sticks of glass over lamp flames to fuse together into fine, colorful models – was first displayed when he began making models of exotic flowers he saw in natural history books. A local aristocrat commissioned him to produce replicas of his orchid collection, and Blaschka discovered that the fascination with the natural sciences that was sweeping the academic community made his work extremely timely and popular.

It’s hard for me to imagine a time at which fused glass was the best material to build model plants for scholarly study. Then again, Blaschka’s work was likely a vast improvement on the work done by Louis Auzoux, making plaster and paper-mache models of the natural world. The glass models make a bit more sense to me when looking at the Blaschka models of marine life. It’s very hard to represent a jellyfish without showing transparent structures, something that glass is uncommonly well suited as a material to portray.

I like to imagine Rudolph Blaschka, in youthful rebellion against his father Leopold, throwing down his glass rod and tongs and declaring, “Father, I cannot bear to make a single stamen more. I’m going to make a sea slug!” Of course, there can be no greater example of filial devotion than spending a career perfecting your father’s craft.

A Blaschka model of maple leaves. Not a sea slug.

Or perhaps Rudolph rebelled later in life, when he made a set of models of diseased trees, colloquially known as the “rotten fruit” series. As the glass decays with the ravages of time, it’s harder to determine whether the rot on the models is what Rudolph meant to depict, or simply the ageing of the materials. There’s an amazing conservation challenge associated with these pieces, as the Blaschka’s made their own, unique formulations of glass to achieve colors and textures not available in conventional glass.

Walking through the museum, I got lost in another story of fathers and sons. The Museum of National History is filled with endless cases of stuffed, mounted animals. A peacock backs into a Bengal tiger, now dusty and threadbare. Beetles are arranged in mandalas, mounted on pins in glass cases. (Apocryphal: “What has the study of biology taught you about the Creator, Dr. Haldane?” “I’m not sure, but He seems to be inordinately fond of beetles.”) A hundred birds, tacked to their perches, all facing west. Just as Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz had planned it.

Photo by davidgalestudios.

Agassiz was one of the first great American scientists. An emigree from Switzerland and an ichthyologist and paleobiologist by inclination, he declared an intention as a young man to build a great museum of natural science. This strange, dusty, beautiful museum is one of his legacies. But Agassiz is remembered more for his theoretical work.

He was perhaps the first scientist to propose the theory of an Ice Age, based on observations of glaciers in the Alps. Not all of his theories stand up as well to history – he was a fierce critic of Darwin and argued, to his death, that species were introduced into the stream of life at different times at the whim of the Creator. He’s also closely associated with the theory of polygenism, a form of “scientific racism” that taught that different races had different intellectual capacities.

There’s another Agassiz represented in the museums, especially in the fourth floor balcony of the Peabody Museum, which houses art and artifacts from the Pacific Islands. I think it may be my favorite space on the Harvard campus: a vast, lonely, light-filled space where you can spend an hour contemplating bark cloth or shark-tooth knives without encountering another soul. The labels in this section are poetically cryptic. It would be wonderful to know who made this cloth, what they made it of, what it was used for. Instead, the label says, “Cloth. Tonga. Collected by A. Agassiz 1899, Donated by A. Agassiz 1902.”

Again, my fantasties of rebellion led me to wonder if Louis Agassiz’s son rejected the natural sciences and became an Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling anthropologist. Alas, it’s another story of a dutiful son following his father’s footsteps. Alexander Agassiz followed his father to the US as a teenager, studied the sciences at Harvard and became, like his father, an ichthyologist. The artifacts from the South Pacific were collected while he was studying fish around the Great Barrier Reef.

Unlike his father, Alexander had a successful business career as well, as an adventurous investor in copper mines in northern Michigan. His business success gave him a vast fortune, which allowed him to give $500,000 to Harvard University to found a zoological museum… the museum that houses his father’s collection.

What’s making me see rebellion in this building, a veritable temple to visionary fathers and dutiful sons? Is it that I’m playing hooky from Harvard Law School, losing myself in a museum, one of my father’s favorite pursuits?

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