Exhibition, talk, film explore a sea of glass

Blaschkas at Mann
Drew Harvell and Claire Smith/Provided
Swimming anemone (Stomphia coccinea) alive, left, and in glass by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

A three-part exhibition examining the art and legacy of the Blaschka glass marine animal collection will open Oct. 27 at Mann Library, launched with a talk at 4 p.m. by Drew Harvell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, on her new book, “Sea of Glass.”

Working from drawings made during 19th-century ocean-faring expeditions, father and son glassblowers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka created more than 10,000 intricate, life-size sculptures of marine life as it was found in oceans not yet touched by climate change or large-scale human activity.

The Mann exhibit, Harvell’s book (published this year by the University of California Press) and her talk all explore the history of the Blaschka figurines – 570 of which are owned by Cornell – and what they can teach us about today’s oceans.

“I wanted to find out how these rare and stunning creatures, rendered so brilliantly in glass by the Blaschkas over a century ago, are faring in the beleaguered oceans of the 21st century,” said Harvell, a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Although marine biodiversity is as fragile as glass in today’s seas, many of the Blaschka creatures are still gracing our oceans.”

The “Sea of Glass” program kicks off Mann’s yearlong series celebrating fieldwork and scientific exhibitions. The exhibit will be on display through January 2017.

“Mann is thrilled to be participating in this celebration of art, biology and history around the Blaschka sculptures,” said Mary Ochs, director of Mann Library. “It’s a great example of how the library’s community spaces, high technology and deep collections can support work that is not only of timeless value but great and immediate relevance to our times.“

Mann will host three related displays on the Blaschka and oceanography theme. In the lobby, “Challenging the Deep” will explore the history of the 19th-century Challenger expedition, the most ambitious and expensive scientific expedition of its day. That mission provided key information for the Blaschkas’ work and laid the groundwork for modern oceanography.

A multimedia display in the Mann Gallery – including oversize photographs and excerpts from David O. Brown’s award-winning documentary, “Fragile Legacy” – will provide an immersive visual experience of some of the highlights of Harvell’s work with Cornell's Blaschka sea life collection and her journey to track the marine life they depicted.

Finally, on Mann's first floor, “Unveiling the Wonders of the Deep Sea” highlights another important influence on the Blaschkas’ work: The exquisite lithography by 19th-century nature illustrator Philippe Henry Gosse. His illustrations reflect a growing enthusiasm for scientific inquiry as well as science’s impact on the era.

Harvell’s talk at Mann will be followed by a reception at 5 p.m. in the Mann Gallery.

Further views of Blaschka artwork are available in the concurrent exhibit, Fragile Legacy, at the Corning Museum of Glass as well as at permanent displays on campus. In the spring semester, Mann’s exhibits program will continue the expedition theme with, among other displays, a spotlight on the work of 18th-century botanist Mark Catesby, and the Macaulay Library and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s efforts to improve audiovisual expeditions in field biology.

For more information, email mann-public-ed-prog@cornell.edu or call 255-5406.

Melanie Lefkowitz is staff writer, editor and social media coordinator for Cornell University Library.

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