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

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.

Oceanus: Alexis Rockman

Alexis rockman: Oceanus

Now on exhibit.

Alexis Rockman: Oceanus is a major exhibition premiering at Mystic Seaport Museum in May 2023.  The show will feature 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.

Collin’s Gallery: OPEN 10:00 am -4:45 pm

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 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.

*Members can visit the exhibit free of charge.

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. The Mystic Seaport Museum and the artist, Alexis Rockman, receive a portion of the sale for each print you order. By clicking the button below, you will be re-directed to the Museums.Co website where you can purchase the prints.

Exhibit Related Events

december, 2023

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.

Sea As Muse

Sea As Muse

Open in the R.J. Schaefer Building

Where do artists find their inspiration? In ancient Greece, the Muses were supernatural beings who inspired artists, scholars, and writers to create their works. The upcoming exhibit, Sea as Muse, explores the ways that the sea provided a similar inspiration for decorative arts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Opening in September 2021, the exhibit showcases fine silver trophies and woodcarvings from the vast collections of Mystic Seaport Museum. Dolphins and mermaids, seaweed and sea urchins, fast ships and ocean waves—visitors will find many delightful details like these, inspired by sea life and life on the seas. 

Silversmithing tools and in-progress pieces loaned by the Providence Jewelry Museum help demonstrate the making process, and interviews with living artisans shed light on both the process and the preparation necessary. New research provides a rare glimpse of some of the immigrant artists and artisans of the past who used their talent and skill to create a variety of beautiful objects in the exhibit. Offering visitors new ways of seeing and understanding American and British decorative arts, Sea as Muse also demystifies the visual languages of artistic expression.

Sea as Muse is the fourth and final exhibit funded by a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Like Open OceanSailor Made, and the 2020 reinstallation of ships’ figureheads, Sea as Muse brings new knowledge, insight, and perspective to treasures in Mystic Seaport Museum’s collections.

Figureheads and Shipcarvings


Open in the Wendell Gallery

After more than 40 years, Mystic Seaport Museum’s figureheads exhibit received a makeover. Through a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, curators Katherine Hijar and Mirelle Luecke re-imagined this visitor favorite with a major new exhibit, Figureheads & Shipcarvings.

Since ancient times and across cultures, decorations have adorned the bows of boats and ships, from the Nile and the Mediterranean to the far North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Dutch and English ships of the 19th century were the first to sport figureheads like the ones we know today. Lions and unicorns were particular favorites of the English navy, and Dutch naval ships featured red lions. Spanish ships mounted figureheads depicting saints, no doubt to ensure blessings and safe passage. By the 18th century, European shipcarvers crafted figureheads that depicted a wide array of subjects, human and animal. The decline of figureheads came with the advent of steam power in the late 19th century, which influenced changes in the design of oceangoing ships. Since steam-powered ships no longer required rigging for sails, ships’ bows no longer provided a natural place for a figurehead to be mounted.

The new exhibit showcases the depth and breadth of the Museum’s carving collections. In addition to figureheads, it features other 19th-century ship carvings, shop figures, and our latest acquisition, a magnificent carousel hippocampus. The exhibit showcases only a fraction of the Museum’s collection. Because of space limitations, 45 figureheads and dozens of other maritime carvings will remain in the Museum’s vaults.

Ship’s figureheads were an important form of public art in the 19th century. A figurehead gave a ship its personality, and each one expressed a unique meaning, imbued with values and reflecting popular culture of the time. This reinterpretation aims to help visitors see these objects through 19th-century eyes, and to understand and appreciate the craft of carving and figureheads as an important art form.