Exploring History through Plants and Glass: A Conversation with Michaela Schmull

Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host! Today, i'm speaking with Michaela Schmull, the director of collections for the Harvard University Herbaria. She's responsible for a collection of about five and a half million dried and pressed botanical specimens, as well as their associated artifacts. We're talking today about her early interest in nature and how it ultimately drove her to natural history museum collection. Here she is! Michaela Schmull, welcome to the show.


Michaela Schmull 01:08

Many thanks for having me. I am very excited to be here.


Jennifer Berglund 01:17

Tell me about where you grew up in Germany and how that shaped your interest in nature.


Michaela Schmull 01:22

I was born in Kiel, which is located at the Baltic Sea. And then I grew up in Lower Saxony in a little town called Alfeld, which is actually a town that claims that the Brothers Grimm, the two people who wrote all the fairy tales, place their story Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. So we have the seven hills, and it's a town from the medieval times. And it has a very interesting history. So I grew up a lot playing outside. I was often in the garden of my grandparents and my parents and on the beach. And both of my parents are very interested in nature and always encouraged myself as well as my siblings to explore what is around us. And very often, when we saw birds or caterpillars on plants, they always asked like, so what kind is it? And so we had always a lot of picture ID books around and we will always looking at what, you know, we found. And so that really got me interested in in my surroundings and in nature.


Jennifer Berglund 02:33

How did you become interested in botany? At the very beginning, I actually wanted to become a marine biologist. That was because I love the ocean so much, and everything that lives in there. But then I started studying biology in a place that didn't offer marine biology. And I happened to have my first botany class, and it was about plant identification. Like, what characters are important to identify what's around you. And that just fits so perfectly in how I grew up. So I decided after the first class, forget marine biology. Marine biology is still fascinating, but I really want to become a botanist. And I find it just so interesting to walk around on a daily basis and be able to say, "Oh, this is this plant. And this is that plant" and, you know, maybe this has this plant has certain health benefits, and I love gardening. And so that was just really what became my passion. Eventually, you became interested in lichen. Tell me about that. Why did lichen really capture your interest? Lichens are just very special. So lichens are several organisms growing together. It is a fungus that associates with green algae and/or cyanobacteria. So it is basically a living community that forms its own little organism, the lichen, and they are just so drop dead beautiful. They have the most amazing colors and shapes, and they just grow everywhere. They grow on trees, they grow on soil, they grow on wood, on rocks, even on artificial substrates like pavements, the sidewalk, the roofs of houses, plastic if you expose it long enough, and that delicate relationship between the organisms just really fascinated me. There is a lot of research that is going on around this from systematics meaning and taxonomy meaning what kind of names do these organisms have, as well as to their ecology, and that was just really something that had me in interested. During my studies when I was still an undergrad and graduate student and for my PhD, I was lucky to be asked by a lab if I wanted to become a lab member and focus my PhD work on lichenology. I had a field site on Whiteface mountain in upstate New York. And my research was focused on ecology, more on ecology than systematics. And basically, what I was looking at was why lichens occur on dead trees that are affected by air pollution? Why do they occur, they're more than on living trees? Now, most lichens are very sensitive to air pollution. And it was a little puzzling that the lichens occurred more on the dead trees that died of the air pollution than on the living trees. So I was bushwhacking up onto Whiteface mountain every day for two years during the growing season, and collecting soil samples, bark samples, I catalogue the lichens who grew on the trees. And I collected water samples as well that were running down the trunk of the tree. So I basically constructed a funnel around the trunk, and then collected there in a little bottle each week, the rainwater that had fallen during the week. And what did you find?


Michaela Schmull 06:23

So, I found that the dead trees actually comb out of the air less water than the living trees. And that means that there are less chemicals running down the trunk of the tree and touching the lichen. So the lichens that grow on the dead tree had to deal with less polluted water than the living trees.


Jennifer Berglund 06:49

Very interesting. Eventually, by the time you were in grad school, you were going to become a professor. And in fact, you did become a professor for a little while. And ultimately, you decided you wanted to transition into museums. Tell me about that transition. Where did you think you were going to go beforehand, and then what ultimately changed your mind. So in Germany, in order to become a professor, you have to have a second qualification. And that's called the habilitation. And I was working towards that habilitation. So I was not a professor at that point. I was basically having a little lab group and I was doing my research, and I was teaching. So basically the works that a professor does, but I was still not qualified to be an apply for actual professorship position. And so while I was working on my projects, I really liked every single aspect of itself. But I realized that, as a professor, I am really focused more on grant applications, and really getting the money for my lab group, who then is actually doing the work. And I really always love to be hands on myself. I love lab work. I love being right there where the action is. And I realized, well, that really wouldn't be the case for the time when I really was a professor. And so I thought, hm, I can do it. But if I have the chance to become more hands-on, I really would prefer that. And so when the position for research and curatorial associate opened here at the Harvard University Herbaria at the Fowler Herbarium, I applied for it because it included part of research and part of taking care of a collection. And when I had been an undergrad, I always had worked on the side in the collection. And I just knew I love sorting. I like solving puzzles. I love working with organisms. So it was just a perfect match. And so I thought I need to apply for this position and leave the path that I had tried to pursue until then. And it was a great decision. What do you enjoy most about working in museums now? I really love the museum environment, working with the collection, working with the specimens, handling the actual organisms, seeing the history that is behind every single specimen. So we have basically, I'm dealing here with 5.5 million histories and stories. And that is just really fascinating. And plus, I love this place and the people I work with. It is just a really special working environment. And we are a great team. And I'm just very lucky to have that great a group around me. Well, and plus you have just this amazing collection, as you said. Tell me specifically about the lichen collection that I know that's near and dear to your heart. What are some of your favorite likened specimens, for example? You know, it's just very hard to say what is my favorite because there are so many favorites. But as I said before, the the history of the collection is just very special. We have a lot of specimens that were collected on expeditions, early expeditions. And when you think about the circumstances where people were making these collections, they went out to other parts of the world without knowing how they really would get there, how things would look there. And they had to overcome a lot of obstacles. You know, weather-wise ships were sinking, they were encountering situations they weren't prepared for. And yet, they had the wits to still think about, oh, what's growing here, let me just collect this and, you know, take it with me on the ship and send it back home so that it can be actually studied. And that is just really quite fascinating. New collections are beautiful as well. Don't get me wrong. I'm not all just about the past. I'm also all about the present. But one of the really highlights of the collection, I think, is a specimen a lichen specimen, that was found on an Egyptian mummy. And just to be clear, it didn't grow there. It was put there by the embalmers. So that lichen specimen is about 2500 to 2800 years old. And it was uncovered when the Natural History Society in Montreal unrolled the mummy, which in itself is nowadays of course, frowned upon and is of course, ethically not okay, whatsoever. But in the 1800s, it was unfortunately, something that was more common. And yeah, during the scientific enrollment, so to say, they kind of like put aside the things that they found, and sent this lichen specimen to a very well known and lichenologist, Edward Tuckerman, for identification. And we bought his collection in the 1800s. I think in 1829 (Correction: The Tuckerman Herbarium was purchased in 1886, not 1829, as stated in the podcast), we bought his collection, and that's how the specimen came to the Fowler Herbarium. Hmm. That's so interesting. It seems like that was somehow, if it was placed on the mummy, that means that it was somehow meaningful. Yes, that is right. Yes. And I actually did do a little research with one of the summer students that we had at that time for a while. And embalmers use these lichens probably for several reasons. One is because lichens are absorbing water. And they are still used in the perfume industry, so they retain the odor of other spices. And so I think those are definitely reasons why these lichens have been used in mummification. Plus, they have anti-microbial purposes. And so all of that together is actually, when you think about it, perfect for embalming and preserving a human body. They make it to the mummy as it's decomposing, or it doesn't smell, right?


Michaela Schmull 13:49

Maybe! I don't know?


Jennifer Berglund 13:52

Or it retains dead mummy smells. And then it keeps certain processes of decay at bay.


Michaela Schmull 14:03

Exactly. Yes. Okay, exactly. Right.


Jennifer Berglund 14:06

Okay. Oh, that's fascinating. That's so interesting. And Egypt is not I mean, and pardon my ignorance here. But Egypt is not a place where I would really envision seeing much lichen. I don't know, I mean, it seems like it's a desert environment, you know, not a place where you'd see much lichen. I guess, maybe on along the Nile, there would? I don't know. And you know, and that is a very good point, because the research that we did that I did with that summer intern showed that that particular species actually must have been traded from other countries. And so lichen was basically a commodity that was worth trading with other cultures, other countries, and most likely it came from what was called then Asia Minor. So that's like Turkey, Greece, the island Crete. Those had climates where those specimens grew at that time. That's really fascinating, particularly because we've just opened this exhibit at the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East called "Mediterranean Marketplaces". And it's all about ancient trade and the things that were traded and trade routes. And this is just a whole other dimension to that. Lichen was part of trade. That's just fascinating! I really want to learn more about this. And in that, you know, this is yet another case for the value of collections because you have preserved potential answers to all of these questions beyond just just pure science questions. But how did like in fit into ancient Mediterranean trade? How did that fit into it, you can ask questions of commerce and human history. So tell me about some of the other collections that really fascinate you. I mean, Harvard has one of the most valuable herbarium collections and why is it, what is it best known for?


Michaela Schmull 16:11

I think, you know, that is a very good question. And I think it depends on the group of people that you ask, "what collection do you know best at the Harvard University Herbaria?" And I think it depends really on the expertise of the person or the interest of the person that you are asking. So we have other outstanding collections, which are, you know, better or lesser known to certain groups, and that is an outstanding fungal collection. We have an outstanding bryophyte collection, meaning mosses and hornworts. Our algae collection is substantial, and it includes diatoms. We have a lot of vascular plants, we have about 4 million vascular plants, meaning trees, shrubs, flowers. Orchids is one aspect of a special like vascular plant group that we house. It is really worldwide in scope, and really includes all organisms that are botanical, plus a few bacteria. If you think about cyanobacteria, like the blue-green algae that were called blue-green algae in the past are now called cyanobacteria. They are part of it. And then of course, we have a paleobotanical collection. We have an archeobotanical collection, which is mostly ancient corncobs. We have a lot of artifacts. And of course, the glass flowers, the famous glass flowers that are also an exhibit in the Natural History Museum are part of our collection.


Jennifer Berglund 17:44

In terms of the glass flowers, at the time, when they were created around 1900 - before and after 1900 - what purpose would they have served? How would they have complemented the actual plant collection.


Michaela Schmull 18:00

So the actual plant collection that we have is mostly dried and pressed, so it's all two dimensional. And over time, every color fades. It's just part of the normal process, how pigments degrade. The plant itself stays in perfect shape if, you know, it's not being eaten by any insects, and we take very good care of our specimens. And they are the specimens are stored in insect proof cabinets. And we are in a climatized building. So they stay in itself as a really usable collection, scientifically valuable collection for centuries. But again, it's two dimensional, it's pressed, and everything gets kind of like brown over time. And the glass flowers were a way of having three dimensional permanent specimens that just maintained their color. And that was really a one of the major aspects that make them so attractive for teaching, for putting on displays for visitors to see. And the Blaschkas who created them really took pride in being detailed and not just creating something that looked like it. They wanted to make the real thing botanically correct. That was their pride.


Jennifer Berglund 19:29

Yeah, and they are truly, truly remarkable. I mean, anyone out there, any of our listeners who haven't seen the glass flowers, they are truly remarkable. Yeah, I mean, one of the most common things you hear from someone who has, you know, gone into the gallery for the first time is, is they don't believe that they're not real that they're made of glass. Yes, truly, they're truly remarkable in that way. So at a time where there wasn't photography or videography, or I mean there was but you know, you couldn't see color. And there was really no other way to represent the plants in nature, it would have been a way to represent plants in the classroom and in the museum.


Michaela Schmull 20:10

Yes, that is correct. Yes.


Jennifer Berglund 20:13

Well, it's too bad that they didn't do a like in a glass like in collection, you know.


Michaela Schmull 20:20

But they do have bryophytes! And they do they do have fungal life cycles. Oh, yeah, they sothey they actually did more little organisms as well, than one actually might think


Jennifer Berglund 20:33

Really, I don't know that I've ever seen those!


Michaela Schmull 20:36

Yeah, well, I hope we will be able to bring some of those out at some point, like the lifecycles, stages that they made, it is really something that I think we all hope will be on display at some point, because they are truly remarkable as well.


Jennifer Berglund 20:51

Oh, my God, I'm dying to see those. But you know, so one thing. So we have a new exhibit, that we're just, well we're installing right now, called "From the Hands of the Makers", which explores what it takes to both make and conserve the glass flowers and investigates the lingering mysteries surrounding their making. And in this exhibit, we look at sort of, as I was saying, in the conservation projects, you know, what it takes to preserve these glass flowers that were meant to be permanent. And, and that's really interesting, because you were talking about how the herbarium plant collection, the real life plant collection, you know, over time, the plants brown, they lose their color, you know, things like that, well, people think of the glass flowers as being permanent, right, but they degrade as well. The pigments that were used, they degrade as well, the glues that were used to attach some of the pieces together, they degrade. So it's it's a real sort of art and science to preserve these collections. And in preserving the collections. conservators have done their own science to sort of backtrack and learn more about the Blaschka's process, which is fascinating. So tell me a little bit, I mean, this is not what you set out to do. You say you set out to mess around with museum collections of real living things. But now you find yourself working with glass specimens. Tell me about that. Like how, what have you learned being a collections manager of not only just real live plants, but glass plants as well.


Michaela Schmull 22:35

So first of all, I have to say, I am just the most fortunate to have an amazing collections manager for the glass flowers, Jennifer Brown, and conservator Scott Fulton. Without those two guys, I would not know what to do.


Jennifer Berglund 22:53

They are truly amazing. We heard from we heard from Jenny Brown in a previous episode, and I encourage you to go back and listen to that because she is a really amazing person, as is Scott. Hopefully we'll have an episode with him sometime. But anyway, carry on, sorry.


Michaela Schmull 23:07

Yeah, so it is really a very different medium and very different objects that have very different needs. I mean, in a way, climate control, you know, lights, humidity, temperature, those are definitely aspects that pertain to both collections. The you know, dried pressed real specimens, as well as you know, other artifacts like the glass flowers, in order to really maintain and, and protect the collection. But otherwise, and handling is, is obviously you want to handle both kinds of collections very carefully. But it's it is a different level of complexity when you deal with glass. And that is really something where you need as a non trained person, you really need your your experts on the team. And that is just very important to maintain such an incredible collection and one of a kind collection as the glass flowers are.


Jennifer Berglund 24:15

Let's talk a little bit more about the exhibit, you know, beyond my quick description. Tell me a little bit about it and tell me what interests you most about it.


Michaela Schmull 24:26

So the exhibit itself is divided into sections. It is kind of like describing how Blaschkas made the models, what materials they used, and how their techniques in making these models evolved over time. So there is for instance, a section about conservation methods and treatments, which deals with how to preserve, restore and protect the models. So damage and repair, for instance, is part of it, as well as research and analysis of the materials down to the microscopic level as best as we can do these days. So that is kind of like all part of the exhibit. And I am just taken aback, every time I see these models, how they were made, given the materials and the tools that the Blaschkas had, at that time in, you know, around 1900s. They are just so detailed and real looking that it is just astonishing when you see the tools and the you know, think about the materials that were available at that time that somebody has the skills and put them into the right place to make something so realistic.


Jennifer Berglund 25:46

And I think it's also interesting, you grew up in Germany, which is where the Blaschkas did their work, they did their work outside of Dresden. And so you've spent a bit of time in Dresden. Tell me about that, what is the area like, paint a picture of the place, the environment where the Blaschkas, would have made these masterpieces.


Michaela Schmull 26:10

I actually also did a little research on Hosterwitz where the Blaschkas lived at that time. And it is a very interesting little town. It's like a small village that was founded in 1400s. So it's a very old settlement. It's located at a river, Elbe, that is very important for transporting goods. And actually, it's location had very early on, for a period of time, factories and businesses growing there. For instance, there was a silk worm farm and silk factory located there until I think the 1800s. And in 1950s, Hosterwitz became part of Dresden because Dresden grew and it then kind of incorporated Hosterwitz into its actual city lines. And I think the close proximity to Dresden that Hosterwitz always had attracted artists, especially in the 1700s and in the 1800s, who spent their summer months in their summer houses there. And it also had like a little palace called the Keppschloss, which is now actually a condo building. But so I think the Blaschkas really were in an area where there was a lot of exchange, and like minded people where they could communicate with so they communicated with the people here at Harvard who commissioned the collection, and they travel around to look at, you know, the flowers they were making, but they also had other artists around them, who might have really helped them in their work, maybe in a very indirect way. But I could certainly imagine that. And so it always has been a very rural area. And even now Hosterwitz is really still relatively green, and has more of a suburb area feeling. And again, like with a lot of kind of like residential housing, that's really the main pictures nowadays.


Jennifer Berglund 28:17

And as we were saying, it's it's very different today than how it would have been at the time that the Blaschkas for many different reasons, but also because when Rudolph was working, he was working during World War One. And things or course changed a lot in that part of Europe and pretty much all of Europe. Do you have any perspective on how that region changed between the time they were working and during the war? And then after?


Michaela Schmull 28:49

You're definitely correct that in Europe itself, there was a lot of disruption of trades, and you know, kind of like buying goods. I mean, there was a shortage of pretty much everything. And I can imagine that it was not the easiest of time to retrieve material that you needed, but I'm really not so sure how that changed how you know, where other resources were, that could be tapped into and or maybe what substitutes were that they had to work with? Because they might not have gotten what they normally used. But yeah, I don't know any specifics about that.


Jennifer Berglund 29:28

You actually started going to that region as a child because you had you had family there. So tell me a little bit about that.


Michaela Schmull 29:36

Yes. So when the wall was built between Germany, or the two Germany's, my grandmother's sister stayed in what then became Eastern Germany, and my family part state in Western Germany. So we traveled and were allowed to travel from time to time to see our family, my grandmother's sister, and it always was a little scary crossing the border because one was always checked on very carefully that one didn't smuggle anything in and going back that one didn't smuggle any person out. And so one had to get out of the car, and they were searching the cars and really kind of like going sometimes through luggage is depending on what their goal basically was. And then being at my grandmother's sister's house with the family was always great, there was so much nature around and we were going outside and capturing beetles that we didn't have in our region. I remember collecting a shoe box full of beetles and listening to, to the noises that they made in that box. So that was always really exciting. During that time, when we were going and visiting my family or that part of the family, what I really never was so aware about was what, you know, people didn't have. The the comparison to you know, what was available in the on the western side, and what was not available, and people weren't able to do on the eastern side. Like the control, basically, that people lived under. The, you know, sometimes restrictions of goods that they had to endure. And that was really something that at that time I wasn't aware of, and I think that is, you know, something because I was so little. And I find it interesting that, you know, for me really in my childhood memory that nature is so so much more prominent in my memories than anything else.


Jennifer Berglund 31:46

Can you tell me a little bit about how Dresden has changed since the wall fell? Does it still have that sort of wild feel?


Michaela Schmull 31:56

Well, I think, you know, the way my my family lived was also a more rural area. I think the towns themselves, they really often were kind of like very grey during those times. There was you know, coming from the west where everything was kind of like colorful, there was a lot of graffiti, there was like, you know, the buildings were in relatively good shape. Going over, there was really more gray, less care taken of the building substance. And I think that really improved greatly after the wall fell. A lot of especially historic buildings, but other buildings as well, were improved, were being rebuilt. And infrastructure was really improved as well after the fall after the wall came down. And so I think that is really one of the major changes. Dresden is, these days, really a great tourist destination. And it is really a very pretty city to go to and visit because of its history, because of the historical buildings that are still around there.


Jennifer Berglund 33:06

And yet, the Blaschka's studio where they created all these masterpieces is no longer. Well, it may still be there. But you never grew up not knowing about the Blaschkas, right?


Michaela Schmull 33:19

No, that is the weird part. Before I came to Harvard, I didn't know about the glass flowers, nor the Blaschkas. And that is really kind of like astonishing as well, because it is such an outstanding collection. And a lot of people from outside come really to Harvard to see the glass flowers. Come specifically to hover to see the glass flowers, yet, I was very ignorant about this very outstanding collection. I think most people that I know are also not really aware of the glass flowers either. But it really would be interesting to figure out, you know, is there a pattern? Why don't we?


Jennifer Berglund 33:20

Yeah, yeah. Because it's something that it you know, certainly we at Harvard, and in the New England area, it's just their collection is so celebrated and so spectacular. Yeah, it's just sort of interesting that that in conserving the glass flowers and keeping them in the collection, we're not only preserving a piece of history in terms of how people viewed nature at a particular time in history, but we're preserving the history of the Blaschkas, as well. Yeah, because yeah, their studio is no more, you know, there's no plaque or anything, you know, where they created these things. And outside of Dresden they live on in the collection at Harvard and you know, elsewhere where there are Blaschka collections. But we have the largest plant collection and so, you know, and thinking about the exhibit, I think that adds to the the gravity of the responsibility to preserve the collection. Conserve it, learn about the process of their creation and keep them intact.


Michaela Schmull 35:03

I absolutely agree.


Jennifer Berglund 35:11

Reflecting on what you have learned about the collection and watching the process of conservation, learning about the creation process of these pieces, what do you hope visitors take away from the exhibit?


Michaela Schmull 35:26

First of all, I think the pure enjoyment of this really perfect and one in a kind collection. And I think really to realize the exceptional talent of the artists, their love for nature, their eye for detail, and their dedication, really, to the project that they had. They created these flowers for a really long time in their lives. And I think this collection was a very important part of their lives. And I think that really realizing and making this collection also important to us is something that I find a great goal of the exhibit and the display of the flowers.


Jennifer Berglund 36:20

Michaela Schmull, thank you so much for being here. This has been wonderful.


Michaela Schmull 36:26

Thank you, Jenny. It was really such a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks a lot.


Jennifer Berglund 36:39

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was edited by Emma Knudsen and produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to the Harvard Herbaria and to Michaela Schmull for her wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pod Bean or wherever you get your podcasts. See in a couple of weeks!