Spineless: A Glass Menagerie of Blaschka Marine Invertebrates


Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, MCZ:SC:324 Lophocercus viridis, MCZ:SC:313 Stiliger ornatus, MCZ:SC:330 Syphonota viridescens. © President and Fellows of Harvard College.  Photograph by Joe Michael.

Spineless: A Glass Menagerie of Blaschka Marine Invertebrates

Now on Exhibit

October 21, 2023 through March 2, 2025

C. D. Mallory Building

Curated by Krystal Rose and James T. Carlton

For millennia, naturalists, scientists, sailors, and artists have been fascinated by marine invertebrates, an abundant, diverse, and ubiquitous group of sea creatures including sponges, jellyfish, sea anemones, crustaceans, mollusks (such as sea slugs and octopuses), sea squirts, and many more. However, finding a way to document these spineless species was often a challenge. When alive and in their natural habitats, many species, especially those with soft bodies, present in vibrant colors and unusual shapes. When extracted from the sea, the animals may quickly become colorless, shapeless, and sometimes almost unrecognizable. 

The major exhibition Spineless, opened on October 21,  2023 at Mystic Seaport Museum, explores some of the inspiring ways that people have tried to record the ocean’s mesmerizing marine invertebrates.  The main theme of the exhibition features the intriguing story of father and son glassmakers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka of Dresden, Germany. In the 1850s, the elder Blaschka became fascinated by invertebrates he observed while at sea. Inspired to produce glass models that would capture their forms, anatomical details, and colors, he and his son went on to create a unique mail-order catalogue business.  They successfully sold and distributed these often extraordinarily fragile pieces to museums and universities around the world for teaching and display purposes.  Over forty of these exquisite models from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and other institutions will be displayed.

The exhibition also features sailors’ journals and rare books containing sketches, watercolors, written descriptions, and photographs — giving a glimpse into early documentation and scientific work at sea.  Alongside the Blaschka glass models and these rarely-seen archival and library materials will be a selection of “wet specimens” preserved in jars from the Yale Peabody Museum, Deparment of Invertebrate Zoology, and from other collections, which highlight the challenges and successes of preserving invertebrates for scientific study.

Some of the species the Blaschkas created in glass live today in waters local to the Museum, and some have since become introduced species around the world, including in Mystic.  Those models are singled out and put into context through the work of Dr. James T. Carlton, Director Emeritus of the Williams College-Mystic Seaport Coastal and Ocean Studies Program, and one of the world’s leading experts in marine bioinvasions. 

The exhibit also features depictions of marine invertebrates by contemporary artists Steffen Dam, Suzette Mouchaty, and Emily Williams, along with the photography of marine biologist and underwater photographer, Jeff Milisen, and Mystic Seaport Museum Photographer, Joe Michael.

The exhibit complements another major exhibition, Alexis Rockman: Oceanus, now on display at the Museum from May 2023 to April 2024.  Spineless, Oceanus, and a new series of waterfront panels on introduced species will highlight many of the same invertebrates created by the Blaschkas.

Spineless was made possible by generous support from:

The Edward and Mary Lord Foundation

The SpringRiver Foundation

Design Principles, Inc.

Thank you to the individuals and institutions who loaned materials for this exhibition.

Elizabeth Brill

Marian and Russell Burke

Corning Museum of Glass

Ernst Mayr Library at Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology

Suzette Mouchaty

Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University

Museum of Science, Boston

New Bedford Whaling Museum

Emily Williams

Yale Peabody Museum Department of Invertebrate Zoology

Oceanus: Alexis Rockman

Alexis rockman: Oceanus

alexis rockman: oceanus

Now on Exhibit

May 27, 2023, through April 28, 2024

Collins Gallery, Thompson Exhibition Buildign

Alexis Rockman: Oceanus is a major exhibition featuring ten large-scale watercolors and an 8-by-24-foot panoramic painting, all commissioned by the Museum to become part of the permanent collection. The project represents a shift in perspective at the Museum to raise awareness and inspire conversations around the critical global issues that face our oceans due to the impacts of maritime activities as part of our collective cultural, social, and economic heritage.

The central work, Oceanus, takes the viewer on a journey of global discovery beneath the world’s changing seas, deftly weaving natural history, archeology, adventure, political analysis, and science into a story about the human condition. Oceanus features twenty-two vessels, sixteen of which were inspired by models of watercraft in the Museum’s collections. The boats and ships presented help to show the history of human activity in relation to the ocean, including their direct ties to the exploitation of resources in the world’s waters. The ten watercolors, with their large swaths of intense fluid colors, explore some of the most pressing issues of our time, from the biodiversity crisis, pollution, and marine invasive species to extinction and climate change.

Oceanus will also serve as the anchor in a Museum-wide initiative to educate visitors on marine invasive species. Programming and educational opportunities throughout the run of the show will harness the many resources of the Museum and partner organizations and the expertise of the Museum staff to address the science and impact of this most pressing issue.

As we look to our global maritime heritage, which Mystic Seaport Museum is committed to preserving, this project and these remarkable works will spark critical discussions on a crisis that faces us all—inspiring productive conversation and a rethinking of what has been and shall be our maritime legacy.

The exhibition is accompanied by Alexis Rockman: Oceanus, a 160-page publication by Rizzoli and Mystic Seaport Museum, featuring interviews and essays by Robert D. Ballard, Christina Connett Brophy, James T. Carlton, Sylvia A. Earle, Michael R. Harrison, Alexis Rockman, Helen M. Rozwadowski, and Nari Ward. 

Mystic Seaport Museum has engaged with Museums.Co to offer fine art prints of the artworks in the exhibition. The Museums.Co archival print collection is an exclusive offering of artwork presented in a museum quality format. Through extensive color matching and artist proofing, these reproductions are incredible representations of the original works. Mystic Seaport Museum and the artist, Alexis Rockman, receive a portion of the sale for each print purchased. By clicking the button below, you will be re-directed to the Museums.Co website where the prints may be purchased.

ALEXIS ROCKMAN: OCEANUS is made possible, in part, by the generous support of Mystic Seaport Museum Members. For underwriting and sponsorship opportunities please contact Chris Freeman at chris.freeman@mysticseaport.org.

The Sea Connects Us

The sea connects us

the sea connects us

Now on Exhibit

Panels Displayed Throughout Museum Grounds

An exhibit featuring stories of maritime history from diverse perspectives can now be seen throughout the grounds of the Museum.

This series of panels, called The Sea Connects Us, is intended to be striking, with bold colors and powerful images on each panel, designed to draw visitors in. 

Each panel tells profound stories of African Americans and Native Americans in maritime history.

The exhibit, part of the Museum’s Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion initiative, explains how greatly African American and Indigenous people were harmed by colonization and slavery and how they persevered and contributed significantly to maritime history.

Exhibit curator Akeia de Barros Gomes states “When people think of maritime history, they don’t think of people who are African American and Native American.” de Barros Gomes said “Unfortunately, these stories have not been widely told before now.” Each panel will contain 100 words or less, giving visitors a snapshot of a specific piece of history. 

The Sea Connects Us PanelOther panels focus on specific individuals, like Venture Smith, a Stonington resident born to a prince in Guinea around 1729. He is an example of the double-edged nature of maritime culture. He was enslaved during a tribal war and brought to the British colonies, where he used money from whaling, fishing, and boat rentals to buy freedom for himself and his family. He purchased land in East Haddam, where he constructed several houses and was one of the earliest African-American mariners to leave an autobiographical account of his life.



Beads and Water

How My Internship at Mystic Seaport Museum Brought Me Closer to My Tribe’s Beading Heritage By Cheyenne Morning Song Tracy, White Earth Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) I

Read More »

Temperance and Trade

Temperance and Trade


Now on Exhibit

Open April 1–December 31

Burrows House in the Seaport Village

In 1851, seven decades before national Prohibition, Maine passed a law forbidding the sale of strong drink. Maine Laws, as they became known, were soon adopted throughout New England, though they were met with little enthusiasm by many citizens and there was often less appetite for enforcing them. To meet the letter of the law, if not its spirit, Connecticut added a provision to its 1854 Maine Law that allowed any three citizens to initiate a complaint against purported sellers of alcohol, freeing limited police resources to deal with crimes that were seen as more urgent. Enforcement of the law was therefore spotty, ebbing and flowing with public interest and will.

In 1869, there were no less than 16 merchants selling alcohol along Water Street in Mystic on the Groton side of the river, all in violation of the Connecticut Maine Law. Indignation grew among Mystic Temperance leaders, a powerful group of community residents that included Thomas Greenman of the Greenman Bros. Shipyard who was also a Stonington justice of the peace. In February of 1870, the Mystic Temperance Association called on the local sheriff to enforce the law and bring town merchants into compliance.

Among the four stores Sheriff Brown entered was Seth Winthrop “Winty” Burrows’ mercantile, then located on the current site of the Chelsea Groton Bank parking lot and now part of the Museum’s Seaport Village. The sheriff seized eight packages of spirits and arrested the merchant himself, Winty’s second of what would ultimately be three arrests for selling alcohol. A nine-month court battle followed, documented in contemporary newspapers as well as court records, that serves as a microcosmic example of the struggle between the moral ideals championed by Temperance activists and the financial realities of life in a working-class New England town.

In this exhibit, guests are invited into the Burrows House parlor to attend a Union Temperance meeting on July 10, 1872, based on an actual meeting that occurred on that date just a short distance away in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. They will hear a re-enactment of a speech given by Temperance activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer at an Iowa Union Temperance meeting in 1870. While reflecting on the speech, guests will learn the history of the Temperance movement from its earliest days in the New England colonies through the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment.

Across the hall from the meeting, guests can explore “Winty” Burrows’ office to learn about his mercantile business and discover the circumstances surrounding his arrest and subsequent trial for the sale of alcohol. Period artifacts illustrate the formative role that maritime trade played in America’s tumultuous relationship with strong drink, complicating and often conflicting with the effort to prohibit its manufacture and sale.

Finally, in the Burrows House kitchen guests will learn about the science and history of alcoholic beverages, beginning with the discovery of fermentation through the invention of distillation that ultimately led us to—and beyond—the Temperance movement. Examples of alcohol’s many uses and important benefits provide a nuanced counterpoint to the dangers of alcohol abuse chronicled in the Parlor. 

Exhibit curator Anthony Caporale is an internationally-renowned mixology author, educator, and consultant specializing in the history and science of alcoholic beverages. He is the playwright and star of The Imbible series of New York City-based musical comedies about the history of cocktails and spirits, which have become some of the longest-running off-Broadway shows of all time. Anthony is also the Director of Spirits Education and Research at New York’s top-ranked Institute of Culinary Education, and he authored the cocktail chapter of the groundbreaking cookbook, Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation.  In addition, he served as the Managing Editor for Chilled Magazine, the National Brand Ambassador for Drambuie Scotch Liqueur, and the US Cocktail Ambassador for Truvia Natural Sweetener. Most recently, Anthony was the featured Cocktail Historian on The Smithsonian Channel‘s Searching For Secrets: New York episode.

Anthony was inspired to curate this exhibit by the unique role the Burrows House played during the Temperance Period in Mystic. There are few remaining examples of such a well-documented history that illuminates both sides of this divisive and complicated social issue. History in general, and the Temperance movement in particular, has taught us that there are rarely simple answers to complex questions.

Benjamin F. Packard Cabin

Benjamin F. Packard Cabin

Benjamin F. Packard Cabin

Now on Exhibit

Stillman Building, 2nd Floor

About the Benjamin F. Packard

The original 244-foot, square-rigged, sailing ship, more than twice the length of the Charles W. Morgan and the last survivor of this type of vessel, was built in 1883 at the shipyard of Goss, Sawyer & Packard in Bath, Maine, and named for one of the builders. The vessel is typical of the superbly designed, finely crafted “Down Easters” or “Cape Horners” of the late 19th century built to carry cargoes around Cape Horn between America’s Atlantic and Pacific ports. The “Down Easters” replaced the clipper ships as the economic demands called for less speed and more cargo-carrying capacity. During most of the Packard‘s 20-odd years in the Cape Horn trade the vessel was owned by Arthur Sewall & Co. of Bath, the largest firm of Cape Horn merchants at the time, and worked out of New York (though the vessel’s official port of registry was Bath).

In 1908, the Packard was purchased by the Northwest Fisheries Company of Seattle and was employed by them (1908-18), and later by the Booth Fisheries Company of Port Townsend, Washington (1918-25), as a “salmon packer,” carrying fisheries workers and equipment from Puget Sound up to the Alaskan fish canneries in the spring and returning in the fall with the workers and the fish. After the degradation of one last “voyage” from Puget Sound to New York as a lumber barge in tow through the Panama Canal, the Packard was retired in 1927.

The Benjamin F. Packard Cabin Exhibit

Subsequent efforts to preserve the vessel as a museum having failed, the Packard came to rest as an amusement park attraction in Rye, New York, where the vessel was irreparably damaged in the hurricane of 1938. Before the Packard was scuttled, some of the after cabin paneling and interior furnishings were removed and brought to Mystic Seaport Museum, where they were stored until the reconstruction was begun almost 40 years later.

The portion of the after cabin on display includes the captain’s stateroom—his day cabin, with its rich goldleafed panels restored, marble and brass fixtures, and plush upholstery—and the officers’ mess cabin. The excellence of the various woods, the fine veneers and graceful carving, and the elaborate decorations testify to the overall magnificence of the ship.

Whaleboat Exhibit

Whaleboat Exhibit

fully equipped whaleboat rowingA fully equipped whaleboat is on display in the shed on Chubb’s Wharf. The building, patterned after buildings on several of New Bedford’s whaling wharves, was constructed in 1982. The whaleboat came to the Museum aboard the Charles W. Morgan in 1941. It is not known whether it was ever actually used, though it was likely built before 1920. The boat contains the gear typically carried in American whaleboats of the 1880s, and whaling tools are displayed above the boat.

whaleboat at mystic seaport museumThe whaleboat was a beautiful craft adapted for a brutal purpose. You can see that this light, strong, double-ended boat was packed with gear for hunting the whale. Whaleships like the Charles W. Morgan carried between three and five whaleboats, hanging in davits ready to use. Each boat was operated by one of the ship’s officers and five oarsmen. About 1,200 feet of whale line were coiled in two tubs, then run around a loggerhead at the stern and forward over the oars to connect to the harpoons–which the whalemen called irons–at the bow. When the forward oarsman, usually called the boatsteerer, got the call, he stood, braced his leg in the “clumsy cleat” notch near the bow, and darted his irons into the whale. This anchored the boat to the whale. He then made his way aft to take the steering oar, and the officer came forward to kill the whale once it grew tired from pulling the boat in a “Nantucket sleighride” or diving–“sounding”– to escape. The officer used a long-shanked lance to pierce the whale’s lungs and cause it to bleed to death. Once the whale rolled over, “fin out,” in death, the boat towed the whale to the mother ship to be processed.

During the warmer months the Museum’s Special Demonstration Squad rows a whaleboat to Middle Wharf to describe how whaleboats were used and demonstrate how maneuverable they are.

Sentinels of the Sea: Lighthouses

Sentinels of the sea

sentinels of the sea

Open April 1–December 31

Brant Point Lighthouse, Siegel Point

The Museum’s replica of Nantucket’s Brant Point Light proudly houses Sentinels of the Sea, an exciting multimedia exhibition recounting the history and diversity of lighthouses from around the country. Surrounded by a panorama of five LCD screens, two short films celebrate these iconic structures with stunning footage and moving images.

From the Revolutionary War era to the advent of GPS, American lighthouses were imperative to the safety and survival of an untold number of ships and sailors at sea. Hear as first-hand accounts from keepers and their families relay some of these stories of survival, as well as the difficult and sometimes perilous duties of a lighthouse keeper.

Mystic Seaport Museum is also a proud participant of the United States Lighthouse Society’s Passport Program. Purchase your passport at the Museum Store, receive a one-of-a-kind stamp at the Visitors’ Reception Center, and get started on your lighthouse quest today!

About the Mystic Seaport Museum Lighthouse

This replica of the Brant Point Lighthouse on Nantucket, located on the southwest point of the Museum grounds known as Siegel Point,was built in 1966. When the first Brant Point Light was built in 1746, it was the second operative lighthouse in New England (the first being Boston Light dating from 1716). The wooden tower, built in 1900 and on which the Mystic Seaport Museum replica was modeled after, is the lowest lighthouse in New England with its light only 26 feet above sea level.

Like the original on Nantucket, which has a 1,300 candlepower electric light and is visible for ten miles, the Brant Point Lighthouse replica contains a fourth-order Fresnel lens. Developed in France during the 1830s, the Fresnel lens, which efficiently focuses light to create that strong beam of light that characterizes lighthouses of today, was one of the most significant developments in lighthouse technology.

The lighthouse has been a significant device for identifying harbors and warning sailors of dangers since ancient Egyptian times and have gone through a long evolutionary process, beginning with burning piles of wood, then using whale oil lamps for illumination, and culminating in the present automated, electronic lighthouses.

Thames Keel Shipbuilding Exhibit

Thames Keel Shipbuilding Exhibit

thames keel shipbuilding exhibit

Open April 1–December 31

Henry B. du Pont Preservation Shipyard

Thames Keel & Shipbuilding Exhibit at Mystic Seaport MuseumThe 92-foot keel assembly from the whaleship Thames is set up on blocks in a shed within the Henry B. du Pont Preservation Shipyard. The keel is the “backbone” and the starting point for the construction of a ship and so, displayed along the entire length of the keel, is an exhibit on the process of shipbuilding that takes visitors from the laying of the keel to her launching.

Built in 1818 on the Connecticut River at Essex, Thames sailed from Sag Harbor for most of the vessel’s career, ending with being scuttled as a breakwater in Sag Harbor after being condemned in 1838. Fair Helen, a somewhat smaller whaler, suffered the same fate, and about 1930 both were dynamited in order to recover quantities of copper with which they were sheathed and fastened. Embedded as they were in the mud, the lowest portions of these vessels escaped with little damage.

Their timbers were rediscovered in 1968 during construction of a marina, a few having been encountered earlier (in 1946 or 1947) when a railway was built on the same site. Fifty-five individual timbers, 51 of which were from Thames, were pulled out in 1968 by Saltair Industries and given to the Museum in December 1971. Verifying that these timbers were in fact from Thames and Fair Helen was an undertaking in itself. The research, together with measurements and comparisons of the timbers, has enabled us not only to confirm their identity as to a particular vessel but also to ascertain their function within the vessel.

Research and documentation is essential to the work of preservation and restoration of the Museum’s exhibit vessels. Unique to Mystic Seaport Museum also is the awareness that to preserve our vessels we need also to preserve those skills of the trade of wooden shipbuilding portrayed in this exhibit.

Small Boats

Small Boats

Featuring Catboats of Mystic Seaport Museum

Popular for both work and play in the shallow waters of southern New England, Long Island, and New Jersey, the catboat was developed before 1850. Its characteristic feature is a single mast set at the very bow, with one large sail. Catboats usually have wide, shallow hulls as well, often with a centerboard to help them sail straight in spite of their shallow draft.

Selected from the many examples in the Museum’s watercraft collection, this exhibit shows the variety of traditional catboats. The 12-foot Beetle Cat is a pleasure boat first built at New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1921 and still in production today. During the summer you can see Beetle Cats under sail, and even try one, at the Museum’s Boathouse. Sanshee is a 14-foot Cape Cod-type catboat built at Wareham, Massachusetts, for pleasure use before 1925. Other cat-rigged pleasure craft are the 14-foot North Haven Dinghy, a type that has been raced in Maine since 1887, and the 13-foot Woods Hole Spritsail Boat, built for racing at Woods Hole on Cape Cod about 1914. Working catboats in the exhibit include the Newport shore boat, built for fishing and lobstering in Rhode Island around 1860, and the classic 20-foot Crosby catboat Frances, built at Osterville in 1900 and used for many years at Nantucket.

Also on display are three examples of the exceptional yacht design and construction of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company of Bristol, Rhode Island. Fiddler, a Buzzards Bay 15 class racing sloop with typically long ends, was built about 1902 and owned by Caroline Dabney, who won the 1904 Beverly Yacht Club series with her all-female crew. Her family donated the boat to Mystic Seaport Museum in 1959.

With her short ends, the 26-foot Alerion III, built in 1913, is a contrast to Fiddler. Alerion was a favorite of her famous designer, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff. He used this beautifully simple daysailer in Narragansett Bay and at Bermuda. Alerion was donated to Mystic Seaport Museum in 1964.

Nettle, a Buzzards Bay 12 ½-foot-class daysailer, is one of the popular class designed by Herreshoff in 1914. The fiberglass version called the Bullseye is still racing today. Catherine Adams received Nettle as a Christmas present from her father, Charles Francis Adams. Almost 50 years later, after she, her children, and her grandchildren had learned to sail in Nettle, she donated the boat to Mystic Seaport Museum in 1963.

Mystic River Scale Model

Mystic River Scale model

What did the Mystic River area look like in the mid-1800s? This spectacular Mystic River Scale Model, 12-feet wide by 40-feet long, is built to the scale of 3/32 inch=1 foot, or 1/128th. It provides Museum visitors with a dramatic bird’s-eye view of history. After years of continuing research and construction, the model features more than 250 detailed dwellings, shops, barns, and lofts, as well as five local shipyards. At the Greenman Brothers’ yard (on the current site of Mystic Seaport Museum) the record-breaking clipper David Crockett is on the ways and other vessels lie in the water or at dockside all along the river.

Sound-and-light shows help visitors understand what went on in the active communities of Mystic River (in the Town of Groton) and Mystic Bridge (in the Town of Stonington) during the height of shipbuilding, between about 1850 and 1880.

The Mystic River Scale Model has been evolving since 1958. A group of volunteer model builders continues to work on additions and detailing.