My longtime fascination with glass kicked into high gear after being completely awed by it in Chihuly Glass and Garden in Seattle, Washington. So, when I was traveling around upstate New York a few years later, I made sure to dedicate some time to the place that explains the mastery of glass better, and in a more entertaining way, than anywhere else in the world: the Corning Museum of Glass.
The pleasant city of Corning, New York, grew up as an agricultural town until the glass industry set up shop along the Chemung River and forever altered the city’s history. Eager to learn more about this game changer, I headed to the museum to find out how melted sand can be transformed into works of art, to see some of that art up close, and to try my hand at creating some myself.
Founded in 1951 by Corning Glass Works, which evolved into Corning Incorporated, this museum is dedicated to the art, history, and science of glass and nothing else. Beyond just a mere repository of objects, the museum teems with activity, from ongoing academic research and scientific innovations that have impacts on our world today to demonstrations, learning opportunities, and hands-on activities.
Multiple modern buildings of, not surprisingly, glass, compose the campus of the museum. Although these structures aren’t visually appealing, at least to me, it’s everything they house that makes this museum superior. The first thing to do is abandon all preconceptions about glass and its everyday utility. Make no mistake: Glass isn’t just for common consumer goods or artistic tchotchkes. The museum’s Innovation Center does a fine job of demonstrating its broader importance in the forms of electric lights, television picture tubes, computer screens, astronomical telescopes, camera and lighthouse lenses, periscopes, and so much more — products and devices used in just about every industry you can think of. If you really want to delve into it, the museum’s Rakow Research Library — the world’s largest collection of materials dedicated to the art and history of glass and glassmaking, from medieval manuscripts to the most modern techniques employed by artisans — is open to the public.
To see what all the fuss is about, lose yourself in the nearly two dozen galleries that display almost 50,000 objects spanning more than 35 centuries of history. From a full-scale model of an Egyptian furnace to the massive factories in Europe, you’ll get to see the evolution of glassmaking, an industry originally dedicated to producing luxury items for the upper classes, whether it was a portrait for an Egyptian pharaoh, vessels to hold precious scented oils, or pendants for Greeks and Romans in high standing.
The museum’s impressive collection contains objects from around the world. The craftsmanship and artistry of the objects will unequivocally impress you: the Islamic drinking horn from the eighth century, the Northern European beaker from the 1500s, the 16th-century Venetian goblet, the Russian cut glass table from the early 1800s, the Chinese snuff bottles from the second half of the 1800s, American wine glasses at the turn of the 19th century, and the Persian vase made in Austria in the late 19th century, to name just a very few. Lamps, perfume bottles, flasks, chess sets, candleholders, marbles, salt shakers, punch cups, decanters, figurines, inkwells, jewelry, boxes, urns, platters, thermometers, a 30-lb. crystal replica of the Liberty Bell — the museum has everything you can possibly conceive of as a glass object. An entire section is devoted to stained glass, and another focuses solely on 1,000 paperweights — fantastic, vibrant worlds, from a single flower to a splay of turnips to an entire marine ecosystem, enclosed in balls of glass, including the world’s first 100-lb paperweight.
I wandered into the Study Gallery, a warehouse of delicate bottles, vases, lamps, and other fragile items, including 2,400 drinking glasses, in a broad range of spectacular colors and forms. Then I headed to the Contemporary Glass Galleries that exhibit some larger sculptures and installations, like Forest Glass, created from 2,000 found drinking glasses of shades of green and brown, stacked into the shapes of three trees; a chandelier titled To Die Upon a Kiss that Miss Havisham would kill for; Endeavor, which captures the colors reflected in Venetian canals in individual wavy pieces suspended from the ceiling; and the most fascinating piece, Carroña — a shattered blood-red Murano-glass chandelier with stuffed, opportunistic crows feasting on the glass carrion, the artist’s metaphorical representation of the fading of Murano’s traditional glass industry and its cannibalization by lesser talents.
Throughout the day, the museum offers live demonstrations, but I wanted to be more than a spectator. I wanted to create. So, from a variety of different types of glassmaking (such as sandblasting, fusing, and hot glassblowing), I took a workshop in flameworking. Working one-on-one alongside a skilled, and patient, glassmaker, I gingerly manipulated three rods of colored glass (orange, green, and brown) and a couple of tools around a 4,000˚ flame. Under his guidance, I quickly discovered how tricky the manipulation of molten glass can be and the precision involved in creating a finely detailed product. But by the end of my lesson, I had created a passable pumpkin pendant that would require cooling and the attachment of a setting, both of which are handled by the staff once you’ve removed your goggles and ended your foray into this highly specialized art form.
After a full day here, I was ready to head to dinner at Sorge’s, just a few doors down from my great accommodations, aptly named Lodging at the Gaffer Inn, along the city’s main strip, Market Street. But on my way out of the museum, I was distracted by the enormity of the gift shop and its breadth of items to take home. With 18,000 square feet of retail space, this is one of the largest museum shops in the United States. More than shelves of mere bagatelles, the shop offers high-quality items for everyone’s budget, from a snowy owl Christmas ornament to an $18,000 vase. Of course, my favorite takeaway arrived in my mailbox a few days after I returned home — my pumpkin pendant, one of the few souvenirs from a vacation that I ever made myself.