Philly glass sculptural fountain is a bed of living mussels

Since 2017, marine biologists with the Water Department have been nurturing freshwater mussels in a laboratory, with the intention of forming beds of mussels in Philadelphia area rivers. The repopulation is not just good for endangered mussels, it could also be a natural means of controlling water pollution as “ecosystem engineers.”

“We are just starting in the Philadelphia region and in the Delaware basin when it comes to freshwater mussel restoration,” said Butler. “We’re doing multiple types of studies, whether reintroduction studies, or test studies in stormwater wetlands, or areas that used to have populations of mussels. There’s much more scientific research to be done before we start to implement a full-scale restoration plan.”

The Cherry Street Pier is hosting “Freshwater,” a sculptural fountain by Jean Shin that uses Delaware River water and living freshwater mussels. Other sculptural elements are made from recycled plastic and shells collected from the Delaware. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It hasn’t helped that much of the last five years, since the mussel hatchery began, has been hampered by uncontrollable forces: the pandemic caused the hatchery to shut down for fear of infection. Then in September 2021, the remnants of Hurricane Ida flooded the hatchery under nine feet of water, destroying much of its equipment.

“Freshwater” came along just as Butler already had a lot on his plate. In the midst of the massive hurricane cleanup and preparing the lab for its first propagation season in three years, Butler got a call from Shin and Philadelphia Contemporary asking if he would participate in the art project.

“When it was initially presented to me, I was, like, ‘Wow, that’s impossible,'” he said. “Then I’m, like, ‘Wow, that’s actually a really cool project.’ You’re marrying art with science, a living exhibit. I got latched onto it.”

Delaware River water trickles down through 30 blown-glass pods in Jean Shin’s sculptural fountain at the Cherry Street Pier. The pods contain living mussels who draw nourishment from the water while cleaning it. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“After visiting her web page and seeing the work she’s done, I knew that she was for real,” said Butler. “I knew she was going to pull off something, in my opinion, pretty incredible. And from what I’ve seen so far, it is.”

“Freshwater” will continue trickling and filtering until November 6, with new mussels being rotated in weekly.

Delaware River water trickles down through 30 blown-glass pods in Jean Shin’s sculptural fountain at the Cherry Street Pier. The pods contain living mussels who draw nourishment from the water while cleaning it. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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