While we were in the US this summer, Prescott and I visited the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. This museum was founded in 1951 as a 100-year company anniversary “gift to the nation.” As gifts go, it’s a pretty good one, and well worth a visit.
The museum doesn’t always work as well as I want it to, largely because there’s an old section and a new section, and the two don’t always mesh clearly together. As a visitor, I wish that they directed you to start your visit in the giant “35 Centuries of Glass” gallery (that may just be the historian in me talking) rather than in the shiny and new Contemporary Glass galleries. So I’ll start with the history.
Glassmaking starts out in Mesopotamia at some point around 3500 BC, when people first figured out how to craft beads. But it really gets going in Egypt with flasks and cups in the 1500s (again, BC).
These first vessels were made via one of two different processes known as casting and slumping. Glass gets fancier as time moves on; people figure out how to cut it and polish it. Here’s a vase from the Achaemenid Empire that was made in roughly 375 BC:
Sometime in the first century BC, someone figures out how to blow glass. This is a huge innovation — it makes glassmaking easier, faster, and less expensive. It also makes glassware more predictably round.
From there, glass becomes increasingly elaborate. For example, they begin to make “cameo glass,” etching a design into one molten layer of glass that has been laid on top of another. This piece, the “Corning Ewer,” came from the Islamic world in about 1000 AD.
Eventually, glass-working moves to Europe, where it soon becomes more fanciful (and sometimes less practical). We end up with items like this basilisk drinking vessel from the Low Countries, which made me smile:
Glasswork takes many forms, of course, and goes far beyond rounded vessels. Here we have a portable shrine with lampwork figures — and a whole lot of real shells — from France (note what appears to be a dalmatian in the lower lefthand corner) …
… a mosaic from Italy …
… and these goblet handles from Venice:
Not all glass was beautiful. These blobs, for example …
… were used as standard weights. They measured ratls, a figure equivalent to 406.25g, from the Fatimid period of the eighth century. As a side note, I have no idea why I find weights so fascinating — but I’m always intrigued by what the ancient world came up with to measure things.
I do know the origin of my interest in American glass of the early nineteenth century: my grandparents used to collect it. Specifically, they collected work known as pressed glass, which might take the form of cup plates …
… or “salts.”
My great-grandfather, who had the fabulous name Loyal Earl Dambach, used to collect American bottles from the mid-1800s . The Corning Glass Museum even has some of Loyal Earl’s correspondence with other glass collectors in its archives! They note that “his historical American flask collection was considered to be the second best in the country at the time of his death in 1966.” I don’t know who had the first-best collection, but I do know that many of Loyal Earl’s flasks broke in a tragic crash. These are not his, but they’ll give you an idea of some of what he had:
The museum shows how these bottles were made:
The history gallery also has a section devoted to paperweights, which became popular in the mid-1800s.
One of my favorite sections of the history gallery is the work of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. In the mid-1800s, Leopold started out in the production of glass eyes:
After a sea voyage, he started creating tiny lifelike models of marine invertebrates. Eventually, between the years 1887 and 1936, he and his son would create over 14,000 botanical models. They started out with marine life …
… and later moved onto a commission making a now-famous collection of 4,400 flowers for Harvard.
The history gallery takes us through beautiful pieces made in late-1800s New Bedford, Massachusetts (who doesn’t love a “pig whimsy?”)…
… and soon afterwards to the amazing late nineteenth and early twentieth century stained glass work of Tiffany and his contemporaries.
The history gallery is one of the older sections of the museum, so it’s curated in a “lets-show-them-everything” kind of way. This means that there’s a lot to see. By the time you hit Tiffany, you’re probably so tired of seeing glass that it might be a good time to take a break (though you’ll tell yourself that you’re so close to the end, you might as well finish). If you don’t take some time out, you may find it hard to focus on the Art Deco and Art Nouveau pieces, the early Steuben work, and all of the good stuff that comes after that. I have to admit that I raced through this section, making only brief stops for the amazing color-work on this Frederick Carder vase …
…Atlantica, a 300-pound sculpture made for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York to commemorate the tricentennial of glassmaking coming to America …
… and The Cat, a quiet piece by Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
It’s worth noting that the Corning Glass Museum isn’t all about looking at glass on display. You can go to demonstrations on glassblowing, glass etching, flameworking, and glass breaking (yup, you can watch them break glass with different kinds of shapes and coatings). There are interactive exhibits like this one on optics, where you can see yourself upside-down:
They have a whole educational gallery on glass innovations, where you can learn about developments in everything from telescopes to bottle machines to windows to fiberglass tubing. I spent a while at the exhibit on Fresnel lenses, which were first used in lighthouses and can now be found in everything from car headlights to spotlights:
The newer galleries in the museum highlight contemporary glass, which comes in all sorts of different forms:
I love this artist, Mara Klonowska, who recreates details from old artwork, such as the lynx in this Durer sketch …
… in thousands of glass shards:
Contemporary glass sometimes ventures into social commentary. It may take a silly bent, like this chess game between the Jews and the Catholics ..
… or it may be deeply serious, such as this “mirror” (titled I Saw Othello’s Visage in His Mind), which darkens every reflection and asks the viewer to think about questions of race and beauty.
You can find reflections on art that has been forgotten (here, the artist melts down glass pieces made between the 1940s and the 1980s) …
… on population growth (each pendulum dangling from the ceiling represents population changes in a particular city over time) …
… and on deforestation (because wood from European forests was used to fuel glass furnaces):
In short, there is a huge amount to see and do here. We spent several hours and could not possibly see it all. A museum pass is good for two days, and I wish we had spread out our visit and returned for a second afternoon (I especially rue having missed the special glass eye exhibition in the Library).
When you’re done at the museum, it’s worth making your way to one of upstate New York’s many wonderful soft-serve places! Here we are in Millport shortly before Prescott’s sister’s wedding: