Corning Museum of Glass

Corning, NY

July 7th, 2005

We all know that Edison invented the light bulb, but who actually made it,  ah, well the glass anyway.  That's right  the Corning Glass Works.  We were crossing New York when we pulled into the sleepy city of Corning.  It is the home office of Corning, as well as the home of the Corning Museum of Glass. The museum houses one of the largest displays of glass.  More than 45,000 glass objects made in the last 3500 years are on display. It takes hours just to wander through all the rooms, following the history of this fascinating substance or marveling at some of the most unusual and intricate pieces of glass artwork.  Then there are the displays on the science of glass, with cutting edge technology, much of which was created or discovered by Corning.  If you still have time and a few dollars more, there are many hands-on workshops where one can create that personal masterpiece, suited to individual wants and skills. But wait, there's more. Hidden away from public eye is possibly the most complete library on glass in the known world. With more then 300,000 items in more than 40 languages  They range from a 12th-century manuscript to modern thesis. Scientists and artists alike can come and research each and every thought ever put to print on the subject of glass.  The main theme of the museum is the collection of all things made of glass. From here we learned that the very first glass ever used by man was probably during the stone age when cavemen broke off pieces of volcanic rock called obsidian, fashioning them into useful tools. The actual making of glass first occurred about 2000 B.C. in Mesopotamia (now Iraq and northern Syria).  It would stay a localized art for several hundred years until it appeared in China, and then spread throughout the world. Each progressive display, advancing through history was tactfully blocked from one another allowing the viewer to focus his attention on specific thoughts without being overwhelmed by the totality of the entire exhibit.  We passed by displays on vases to figurines, then on to plates cups and trays.  Then there were the stained glass windows.  These were among the best I've ever seen. As we continued viewing glass through the ages, it became obvious that early glass making was restricted to those who enjoyed the life of the rich or powerful.  Artisans were usually in the employment of royalty and the like. It moved from there to the commercial world, but still individual artists lacked the equipment  and space to produce meaningful pieces.  This continued right up into the 1960 when glass changed dramatically.  Artists began working glass in their studios, outside of factories. Overnight things began to change as new ideas caught on and new processes were invented.  The development of portable glass furnaces, however, enabled artists to explore hot processes.  Glassblowing and other hot techniques galvanized studio glassmaking. 
Having passed through the glass collection area, we found ourselves in an outdoor theater where a young man was beginning the creation of a vase by blowing. As he explained, there's not much to it,  You just need a furnace, some glass stock, a 12 ft. hollow metal rod, some paddles and pinchers, and, Oh Yah, a tremendous amount of talent and practice.  We watched as he took the rod, put it in the open door furnace and picked up a small amount of glass on the end. Deftly he spun the glass around on a wooden paddle until he liked it's shape and then he blew into the other end,  the glass expanded.  Back into the fire for a moment and then back to the paddle and the blowing.  Within minutes a glass vase took shape.  A quick pinch with pinchers and the vase came free from the glass stuck to the rod and the masterpiece was done.  Such demonstrations were not just for adults.  There were all kinds of things for kids to see and do.  Laura found a light representation of the hot glass furnace along with the rod necessary to reach in and get some simulated molten glass.  This entire operation was quite fun. There were many other points of interest that I can only touch on.  There was the history of the reflective glass mirror which revolutionized the science of astronomy.  There was the creation of tempered glass which changed car windshields forever, and the works of Michael Owens who in 1903 introduced the first fully automatic bottling machine and changed food processing forever. This brought us to the final experience.  Some hands-on work with glass.  Laura decided to try glass etching. In one part of the museum, there were several workrooms in which various levels of artistic endeavors were in progress.  The etching room was simple but effective.  Several work tables were positioned in the middle of the room on which were an assortment of paper stickers.  The first job was to select a piece of glass.  Laura found a small tumbler made of clear glass.  To this she attached strips of tape vertically.  Between the strips, she affixed small paper hearts. With the decorations complete, the glass was surrendered to the room attendant who through the use of very heavy gloves, held it in a light sand blaster.  The sand flew at the glass with ever increasing velocity. So fine that although it was unable to penetrate the paper masking, it ate into the smooth glass surface, turning it a frosty white.  It was all over in a matter of seconds.  The final stage was a simple water wash to remove the stickers and tape, and the process was complete. One beautifully decorated tumbler was added to our small collection of glasses.  The day was quite long, but we had wanted to see as much as possible.  I would put this trip up near the top of the leader board of great museums to see along the way.

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