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A multifaceted day at the Corning Museum of Glass

One of western New York's best museums is in one of its most charming small towns

This afternoon, we’re making nightlights. The children’s class at the Studio is just the right kind of pause in a day full of stimulus and sophisticated beauty, some which has sailed over the heads of this group of youngsters. The facilitator offers us a square glass tile in our choice of four colors, some angular broken bits, some glass tubes. She tells us we can use a special tool to score the thin glass wafers to make them breakable, using a pair of flat pliers, along the white line we create. She warns us to be careful of the fine fragments of glass and dust that clings to the waffled plastic work surface. We should be especially careful about using our fingers to rub our eyes.

This is no mere arts and crafts table at a kids’ museum. We’re making something real that we can plug into the wall of our rooms to scare the monsters away. It’s a window into the hobby, the profession, the art of glassmaking, something humans have been doing since the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, as we’ve just recently learned at the Corning Museum of Glass next door. 

Stacking and gluing glass is oddly addictive. The scoring tool and the pliers together make neat little cuts in the glass fragments. The kids stop bickering, fidgeting, and whistling and get to work. Their own nascent artistic preferences start to emerge, with one child making a half moon with trees, another forming pretty geometric patterns, and the third focused only on how the colors seem to come together.

The DIY nightlight project is, most of all, a starter drug. It’s rated for ages four and up, as are several other projects: a sun catcher, a wind chime, a tic-tac-toe board. Other projects, for older children and teenagers, involve jewelry or glass flowers. Everyone can make sandblasted tumblers or Christmas ornaments. There’s even an entry-level glassblowing class. 

If you find that you’re all in with glassmaking, you can take weekend, one-week, and two-week classes with the Studio’s resident artists—many with no prior experience necessary. This kind of long-term draw is one of the many boons the museum has brought to the local tourist economy as it brings in curious hobbyists and early-career artists from all over the world.

Once our nightlights are glued together just so, a technician takes them from us and thanks us. He will fuse them in a kiln and package them for shipping. Our finished product shows up intact on our front porch two days later: four beautiful glass panels mounted in front of powerful, photo-sensitive LED lights. When we drive up to the house at night, the glow of the nightlights is clearly visible through our windows.

Later, we find ourselves in a glass egg the size of a house. At each of the tapered ends, there is a place where you can sit and hear the person on the opposite side, thirty feet away, whisper to you. Anywhere else, you can hear stray snippets of conversation and other ambient noises bouncing around in the ovoid space. We’re in the Innovation Center, a science museum that forms three distinct areas of the glass museum. There is also a glass history gallery and a series of contemporary art spaces.

Nearby, a two-story torus of heat-resistant casserole dishes in the Innovation Center reminds us of how common Corning products have become in our lives. It’s a subtle sales pitch for Corning, Inc., the Fortune 500 company that brought one of America’s original tech start-ups to the Southern Tier and built one of the state’s most charming small towns. Corning, after all, is responsible for the scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass that graces the front of so many of our smartphones.

There’s a submarine periscope that lets you have a look outside through the ceiling of the museum. There’s also an exhibit about windows that shows how improvements in glass keeps us safe from our windshields during car crashes and allows astronauts to gaze upon the earth below. The showstopper is a 200-inch disc, the first casting of the lens for the Hale Observatory at Mount Palomar, near Los Angeles.

Earlier, we were in the Glass Collection Galleries, a series of spaces that showcase glassworks from ancient Egypt through today. The kids perked up as they saw how the vessels and service items of the Roman Empire were recognizable as something similar to what we’d use today. These galleries are inclusive of all of the major world cultures that have used glass as well as the finest specimens of the Industrial Age. The stained glass windows were particularly impressive as were the ornate lamps and chandeliers of Imperial Europe—but admittedly not as impressive as a collection of almost a thousand paperweights. Again, the mundane becomes high art.

The 26,000-square-foot Contemporary Art + Design wing eschews the complexity of the historical collection for high ceilings and spotless floors of pure white. It’s bright with diffuse sunlight and spare, making it hard to find the corners of rooms. Think Dave Bowman’s hotel room at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The effect draws our attention to a permanent collection of seventy significant contemporary glassworks. This summer, the Changing Exhibitions Gallery will feature a collection of glass mosaics from the studio of Louis C. Tiffany. The exhibit showcases actual artifacts and locations in New York State where Tiffany mosaics still remain.

Inside a two-story wraparound stadium, a glassblower removes a glob of molten glass from an oven fired to 2,300 degrees. She blows through a hollow rod, and spectators watch as it takes the shape of a vase as it cools. We’ve seen this kind of craft before at historical parks by re-enactors, but Corning brings the show into the twenty-first century. Cameras inside the ovens themselves give us a most unusual perspective. 

The hot glass demos happen here in this cavernous auditorium, but also on trucks, cruise ships, and, this summer, on barges along the Erie Canal. The museum promoters know that the best way to get people to come to Corning is to take Corning to them.

The stadium is also used to show how glassmakers use open flames to shape rods and plates of glass into unusual shapes. A fiber optics show, representing the rising industry of photonics, shows how light can be trapped and transmitted inside a thread of glass.

For many museums, the gift shop is an afterthought, an area where you can buy mementos on the way out the door. The Corning Museum of Glass deconstructs this approach by making its gift shop the centerpiece of the whole experience. All of the galleries overlook the massive shop that spans the length of the museum building’s lower level. There are collectible works of art; practical, everyday jewelry; a Pyrex store; and a toy shop with an extensive collection of old-fashioned glass marbles.

The Corning Glass Museum is not exactly a well-kept secret. Generations of schoolchildren from throughout the Rochester area have been traveling there for years. However, the museum remains relevant and awe-inspiring to Western New Yorkers as they introduce the next generation to one of the industries that has kept this region central in the information age. 

Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors. 

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