Chemistry Staff Help Uncover the Lost History of UW’s 19th-Century Glass Treasures

In 2005, Zoology Academic Curator Paula Holahan made an accidental discovery: she unearthed a priceless collection of ocean invertebrates made out of glass.

Holahan revealed a collection of rarely seen glass models that depict numerous fragile figurines of jellyfish, radiolarians and sea anemones with spiky tentacles. Handmade by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka in the 19th-century, the glass works were produced in a time when the mystery of the deep-sea sparked the interest of many.

“There are only a handful of collections like these in the world,” says campus glassblower Tracy Drier. “This glass is a treasure of the state.”

Over the past eight years, the joint efforts of the Zoology Museum and staff in the Department of Chemistry including Drier and Ilia Guzei, director of the X-Ray Crystallography Lab, have worked to preserve these treasures.  To start, a new photography display is open in the Academic Staff Art Gallery Room 270 in Bascom Hall.

The intricate designs make this collection priceless, says Laura Halverson Monahan, curator of the Zoology Museum. Only a few Blaschka models are known to remain today.

The team now hopes their series of stunning photographs can be shared at venues across Madison to raise awareness about the restoration efforts needed to protect this collection. Difficult and expensive, this process requires the same dexterity and expertise as restoring artwork. The deteriorating glue and glass within the pieces make them especially fragile.

“We want these photos to be shared all across campus,” Guzei said. “The conservation effort starts with making people know what these models are all about.”

But, how and when did these specimens come to UW-Madison?

Edward A. Birge, a past president, dean, zoology professor, and first curator of the UW Zoological Museum bought these rare glass specimens for UW-Madison in 1890. Birge ordered them from Ward’s Natural Science catalog after an 1884 fire in Science Hall destroyed a large portion of the university’s scientific equipment and supplies. The models were an ideal way to fuel students’ curiosity, and were essential to invertebrate zoology and marine biology classes taught at the time.

Over the years, however, the Blaschka models were phased out of classes and replaced with wax and plaster models.

“To have this collection to preserve is rare,” Drier said. “We’re moving in a direction to make them have the same quality level as they did in the 19th-century.”

View a slideshow about the collection on Flickr.

Story by Aimee Katz, College of Letters & Science