Behind the Exhibits at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Students conducting research and families touring the Harvard campus stroll side-by-side at a collection of scientific wonders in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Inside the museum, visitors can explore exhibitions such as the Great Mammal Hall, featuring large skeletal structures and stuffed animals, and the Earth and Planetary Sciences Gallery, filled with rare gemstones and meteorites.

The Museum of Natural History, which serves as the public face of the University’s three research museums, displays a small sampling of the collections of the Mineralogical and Geological Museum, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Graduate student David B. Westwood has toured the museum multiple times, noting that the well-recognized exhibits draw heavy foot traffic from outside of Harvard’s campus. But there is a side to the museum that is less visible to the public, and it is this dedicated collection staff working behind-the-scenes that ensures that the museum is constantly improving.

BEHIND THE GLASS

Perhaps one of the museum’s most beloved exhibits is the “Glass Flowers” gallery, which unites science and art.

Crafted by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka over a span of five decades, the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants boasts 847 sets of handmade glass models—630 of which have traditionally been displayed at the museum—consisting of 4,300 individual pieces.

The main exhibit is currently closed for restoration and is expected to reopen in May. This represents the first major restoration since the installation of the collection more than 100 years ago.

After a day spent carefully emptying the famous exhibition room, Jennifer Brown, collection manager of the Glass Flowers exhibit, said she is excited about the changes and the opportunity to rotate the content with greater frequency.

“[The previous arrangement] was very static,” she said, adding that the configuration of the cases in the room will be changed “to be more dynamic.”

“We are going to have more opportunities for movement and variety,” she said, noting that she was particularly eager to display the glass fern models that have previously been kept in storage.

The new display also aims to reflect trends in modern botany by arranging the models according to the classifications of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group of contemporary botanists.

The glass models will undergo restoration to treat cracks with archival adhesive, unlike the animal hide glue that the Blaschkas originally used. Delamination of the paint layers and glass will also be addressed, and the models will be cleaned gently with air and a soft brush. The exhibit’s conservator, Scott E. Fulton, who previously spent 27 years at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, will take care of the models.

“The objects are going to be just as interesting and enticing to people as they have always been,” Brown said. “But it’s going to be greatly improved.”

In the meantime, there is a temporary exhibit of glass flowers next to the gallery of glass sea creatures, which were also created by the Blaschkas.

“This is a kind of a fun opportunity [to join] these bodies of work together and tell this Blaschka story,” Brown said.

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