Spineless: A Glass Menagerie of Blaschka Marine Invertebrates

Opening October 2023

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 and diverse group of sea creatures including sponges, jellyfish, sea anemones, crustaceans, mollusks, sea squirts, and 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: A Glass Menagerie of Blaschka Marine Invertebrates, opening in October 2023, will explore 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. The exhibit gathers over forty of these exquisite models from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University and other institutions.

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, highlighting 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. 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, including works in glass, photography, and other media.

Spineless 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 represented by the Blaschkas.