Hot Stuff

Kelly Tuttle reviews the Corning Museum of Glass.

By Kelly Tuttle | January 30, 2013

Corning Museum of Glass
1 Museum Way
Corning, NY 14830

The spacious, glass-walled entrance hall to the Corning Museum of Glass houses a lone Dale Chihuly sculpture of twisting greenish tentacles. As I walked in the doors, a part of me felt vaguely disappointed; I had been hoping for a vibrant display of madly colorful glass. Little did I know how much of that dazzling spectacle I would find.

Located in Corning, New York, the museum houses the largest collection of glass in the world, with over 45,000 objects spanning 3,500 years. In 1868 the Brooklyn Flint Glass Company moved to Corning and became the Corning Glass Works. By 1905 upward of 2,500 glass craftspeople had moved into the then industrialized area, which acquired the pseudonym Crystal City. The museum now occupies the grounds of the former factory.

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A show at the Corning Museum of Glass features professional glassmakers at their craft.

A show at the Corning Museum of Glass features professional glassmakers at their craft.

Corning Museum of Glass

I began with the historical collection. A large, well-lit, semicircular area houses the display cases, which invited me to circulate back and forth among the various eras and regions. I was surprised by how little had changed over time in terms of technique—blowing, casting, slumping, cutting—and design. Some of the ancient bowls and vases, even their patterns, looked quite modern. Obviously, I was not the first to think so: one case displayed ancient originals and recent replicas and asked visitors to determine which were fakes and why.

The vertical display cases are mostly laid out like spokes on a wheel. The sheer number of objects glittering all around becomes mesmerizing. Hundreds of nearly identical flasks from the 1820s reinforce the everyday nature of glass. Even the dozens of trick glasses in the form of animals and windmills become commonplace. The curators overcome this feeling of inundation with the occasional highlighted object accompanied by detailed explanations. The text reinvigorates the viewer, either by drawing connections between pieces or by pointing out something unique. Particularly memorable was a Hedwig beaker dated to the 12th or early 13th century. The beaker is part of a set associated with Saint Hedwig of Silesia and is unlike any other medieval glasswork from the Islamic, Byzantine, or Western world. Its origins remain a puzzle.

The art collections, both modern and contemporary, highlight the ability of glass to metamorphose. The modern collection showcases creations from the 19th century onward. Some pieces, such as the Tiffany windows, are well known but spectacular to see up close. Others, such as the Czech “Single Bloom” vases, are so smooth and precise they almost do not seem real. The contemporary-glass gallery displays works made in the last 25 years. Each piece is unique, and each in its way is astounding. Take, for example, the strangely realistic cast sculpture by Nicolas Africano: a woman stands with her weight on her right foot, as though waiting, and the golden drapery of her glass skirt hangs from her waist and pools at her feet.

No less magnificent for showcasing the versatility of glass is the museum’s innovation center. Important technical discoveries are on display, along with descriptions and recorded video interviews with inventors of some recent innovations. Most are familiar: optical lenses, borosilicate glass (known more commonly by its brand name, Pyrex), glass ceramics, fused silica, bendable glass, and fiber optics. As with the historical collection, the creative and often hands-on displays keep visitors interested. I made a telescope with two lenses, bent a piece of glass farther than seemed possible, and dazzled myself looking through a Fresnel lens.

Not to be missed are hot-glass demonstrations and do-it-yourself activities. The latter should be booked in advance during the high season (summer and holidays). I chose sandblasting and made patterns with masking tape on my piece of glassware, a pint glass, before sandblasting it with very finely ground silica. Sandblasting was fun, and something even the smallest child in our group was able to do, and allowed for a view of glassblowing in the adjacent space. But it’s no substitute for one of the professional hot-glass shows that take place several times a day. The master glassworkers practice their craft with flourish and care, and narrate the performance with detailed explanations. The glass can be seen at all times during the show: even the inside of the furnace is captured by a video camera. I was amazed at how these craftspeople make such an old and dangerous process look so simple and elegant.

By the end of the day I was dazed by the amount I had seen, my brain was buzzing from all I had learned, and I appreciated the tranquility of the entrance hall. Here I could relax and process my visit, appreciating the museum’s thoughtful presentation of science, art, and practice.