19th century glass artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka provided natural history museums around the world with lifelike glass replicas of marine life.
Natural history museums put life on display, usually in the form of stuffed specimens or replicas of animals and plants. Their goal was to educate, and to illuminate the natural world for their visitors. In that quest, fragile marine invertebrates presented a unique challenge. Take a jellyfish or squid or sea anemone out of the water and it very quickly decolours, deflates, degrades, and disappears. You could suspend it in alcohol, of course, but the results were unsatisfactory and did not last very long. The father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, from Dresden in Germany, were the 19th and early 20th century solution to this problem.
The Blaschkas came from a long line of Bohemian glassblowers. Leopold, the father, made glass eyes, but also dabbled in glass replicas of plants. A set of immaculate glass orchids caught the eye of the director of the Dresden natural history museum, who commissioned Leopold to create glass replicas of sea anemones. The result was exquisite and precise; scientifically accurate and yet luminous and lifelike in a way never achieved before. Leopold got out of the glass eye business and got into the marine replica business.
For the next few decades, museums purchased glass replicas from the Blaschkas by mail order – thousands of pieces of tiny glass art spread across the world:
The Blaschkas later produced a unique set of glass replicas of plant life (the so-called Glass Flowers) which are now on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, but I think that the artistry of the glass sea life cannot be topped.