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A haven of glass flora

Cleaning will add luster to Harvard museum's plants

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Even in the dead of winter, an enormous garden blossoms here. Bright purple irises. White water lilies. Even ripe cashew and coffee plants.

All of them thrive — because all of them are made of glass.

Each flower is part of the 847 life-size models and 3,000 enlarged flowers and plant sections that make up the Harvard University Museum of Natural History's glass flowers collection.

"The question people most often ask is, 'Where are the glass flowers?' " said Susan Rossi-Wilcox, administrator of the collection. "Because nobody can believe these are made of glass."

Eventually, the flowers will bloom even more beautifully. They are undergoing a $2 million cleaning and restoration process, begun in October. But the work won't be done quickly.

"This is just the first step in many thousands of steps," said Emer McCourt, head of marketing at the museum.

The procedure is expected to take five years. It will take that long so that Harvard can still display 80 percent of the flowers at any given time.

The flowers were commissioned in 1886 by George Lincoln Goodale, a Harvard botany professor who wanted to use them as teaching aids. Goodale traveled to Dresden, Germany, to persuade artisans Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a father-and-son team who primarily created glass models of marine life, to make plant models for Harvard.

Three years after the first models were delivered, a wealthy benefactor, Elizabeth C. Ware, agreed to pay the Blaschkas 8,800 German marks annually for 10 years if they would make models exclusively for the school.

"I picture someone coming to one of the Blaschkas and saying, 'We'd like to commission you for this or that,' and them snapping their heels and saying, 'We work for no one other than Harvard,' " says Joshua Basseches, executive director of the museum. "Whether that discussion took place I can't say, but that's the kind of thing that would have happened."

The Blaschkas spent 50 years creating flowers for Harvard. Leopold, the father, died before he got the chance to visit his work at the museum. Rudolf continued working on the flowers until his retirement in 1936.

The flowers have remained largely untouched since their arrival. Most are in their original cases. But because they were displayed in a main thoroughfare of the museum for over a century, the flowers have sustained some damage.

Though the cases are climate-controlled, dust has gotten in through the air vents, occasionally making a white flower look slightly gray. Vibrations from footsteps have caused some of the extremely thin glass leaves to crack or break off entirely.

But the museum didn't undertake repairs until now, because glass restoration techniques weren't good enough to do the work until recent years.

"The assumption was that they were dirty because no one cared, when in fact the opposite was true," Basseches said.

Despite the wear and tear on the flowers, tourists from all over the world still flock to see them.

"Artistically, they're not a pretty thing to look at, but technically, because they're such a true representation of (plants and flowers), they're very impressive," says Patrick DeFlorio, a Concord glass blower who has visited the museum.

He says the techniques used to make the flowers are so complicated that very few, if any, glass blowers use them regularly.

The flowers are the most popular exhibit at the museum, which attracts about 120,000 visitors annually.

Rossi-Wilcox, who has spent 15 years working exclusively with the flowers, thinks she knows why.

"I could spend my entire life, and be a very old woman, looking at these models and each time see something I never saw before," she says. "They're just that magical."