CAMBRIDGE - An aquarium of a different sort is on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
Sure, there are small sea slugs, prickly sea cucumbers, a floating jellyfish, and an octopus - tentacles curled around his red and yellow body.
But these creatures aren't just behind glass - they are glass.
The creatures were created more than a century ago by a father and son who made incredibly accurate models in a time before scientists had the Internet, video, or even color photography to aid their research.
"It's incredible," said Chris Roberts, a graduate engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as he walked through the displays. "I don't know how they could have had that control with melted glass."
The "Sea Creatures in Glass" exhibit is the first time the museum has displayed part of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology's collection of more than 400 animals made in the mid-1800s by German artists Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. But for years, the natural history museum has shown an even larger collection of their work, the thousands of models of glass flowers Harvard commissioned.
Both collections were created to help scientists and students study far-flung or hard-to-preserve plants and animals in three dimensions. And it's obvious why the Blaschkas' work became popular among universities and museums.
When preserved in formaldehyde, for example, marine invertebrates often lost their color and shape. A sea cucumber might look like a jaundiced blob.
But the Blaschkas' version still looks alive more than 100 years later, with glass spikes jutting out of a rust-colored body.
"That's a very dramatic example of how the models enabled study and investigation in a way that the specimens could not," said Elisabeth Werby, the museum's executive director.
Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolph, were the last in a line of family jewelers and glassmakers dating to the 15th century in Venice. Beginning in 1863, Leopold began to create the marine invertebrate sculptures in his workshop near Dresden, Germany.
The sculptures were sold through a scientific catalog to organizations throughout the world.
Then in 1886, Harvard first commissioned the men to create the vast collection of glass flowers. The Blaschkas spent 50 years creating flowers for Harvard. After Leopold died, Rudolf continued the work.
After a renewed interest in their work with animal models, the museum decided to showcase them along with the glass flowers, Werby said.
"When they opened the drawers [of animals] to show me and the exhibition team, we were just astounded at the beauty and diversity of them, as if someone came upon the glass flowers for the first time," Werby said. "There were drawers and drawers of just extraordinary specimens."
Werby said the appeal of the Blaschkas' models is that they intersect art and science. A sea jelly model may be scientifically accurate, but it's also beautiful, with tentacles made of tiny beads of clear and gold colored glass catching the light.
"No matter how jaded people are, they come in and their jaws just drop," she said.