The Corning Museum of Glass is one of the world’s largest collections related to glass history, technology and art. Located in Corning, New York, approximately 250 miles from New York City and 125 miles from Buffalo, the museum was opened in 1951 in celebration of the centennial of the famous glass works that was founded in that city, and that is now a world-wide presence in the glass and ceramics industries under the name of Corning International. The museum originally occupied a low-slung glass-walled building designed in the International Style by Wallace Harrison, famous for Lincoln Center, LaGuardia Airport and the Museum of Modern Art.
After flood damage during Hurricane Agnes in 1972 the galleries were dramatically raised beyond the reach of the Chemung River that flows through Corning, and the rebuilt museum has been in operation since 1980. The museum outgrew its premises in the 1990s and a glassmaking studio was added in 1996 and additional galleries opened in 2001. This provided for a glass sculpture gallery, ongoing daily glassmaking demonstrations and one of the largest museum stores in the country. A new contemporary wing opened in 2015, further expanding the facilities for modern glass art and glassmaking.
The museum was conceived around 1950 as a research institution regarding glassmaking and glass art, rather than as a showcase for the company and its products. It was founded by Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., a major figure in the glass industry who was also curator of rare books at the Library of Congress, founder of Harvard’s Houghton Library for rare books and manuscripts, trustee of the New York Public Library and at various times chairman of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Metropolitan Museum of Art and New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library. On becoming president of the money-losing Steuben Glass division of the Corning Works in 1933, it is said that he destroyed every piece of glass in the company’s warehouse and vowed to chart a new course combining art, design and business.
Houghton wrote the charter of the museum together with his cousin, long-time New York congressman Amo Houghton, and designed its logo and recruited its board of trustees. The museum was directed for many years by glass artist, historian and industrialist Thomas Buechner, who founded several scholarly journals on glass art as well as the nearby Rockwell Musem of Art, and brought the Corning Museum international attention with the 1959 art exhibition “Glass59”.
The collection contains more than 45,000 glass pieces that are up to 3500 years old. A self-guided tour begins in the just-opened contemporary glass galleries, which now occupy a new Contemporary Art+Design wing of some 26,000 square feet. The thematically-curated galleries, containing more than 70 objects from the museum’s permanent collection that are organized on the basis of glass history, glassmaking materials, the body and nature, are largely lit naturally through a series of diffusing skylights. With the opening of the contemporary galleries, extensive background material and interactive capacities became available through GlassApp, which enables visitors to use their smartphones and take part in social media discussions of the artwork.
Developments in international design over the past quarter century are also featured in the galleries, which are centered around The Porch, a display area that on the one hand offers several portals of access into the other galleries and on the other overlooks a newly-created one-acre green and the original 1951 museum building. The new building is in fact an enormous vitrine, a traditional museum display case that is made in this instance out of Corning’s GorillaGlass®, a thin damage-resistant and optically-pure glass that is widely used in laptops, notebooks, cellphones and interior architecture. This is in contrast to the tempered glass used in the other galleries, and in museums generally, which is much heavier and slightly green-tinged. Another unique feature of the new galleries is the use of an all-optical converged cellular and WiFi system developed by the company, ONE™ Wireless, which eliminates the need for parallel networks and provides nearly unlimited bandwidth to visitors.
The Glass Collection galleries tell the story of glassmaking from the discovery 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia that lime, soda and sand could be mixed, heated and formed into durable and decorative objects. The oldest articles in the collection come from Egypt and the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and date from about 1500 BCE. The Mesopotamian technique of core forming, in which a solid core was encased in molten glass to form a vessel, was used, mostly for luxury items, for a thousand years until the Greeks developed the mosaic method of fusing smaller pieces of lengths of glass to make larger pieces, many of which survive in the collections. A large representation is also present of the Romans’ great glassmaking advances, the inflating of molten glass at the end of a blowpipe and the carving or other decorating of hot or cooling glass with glass of other colors, which made glassware less expensive and more widely available.
Additional displays trace the preservation of glassmaking techniques by the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world after the fall of Rome and the decline of Roman glassmaking. The resurgence of glassmaking, first in the drinking and storage vessels and window panes of northern Europe and then during the glassmaking Renaissance that centered around Venice, is also extensively represented. The development of first more costly and decorative and then widely-distributed and utilitarian glass in Europe during the 17th, 18th and 19th century is on display, as are rare artifacts from the original American glassmaking industry in New Jersey and a robust later collection from several great American manufacturers in New England, Pennsylvania and Ohio. There is of course an extensive collection centering on Corning itself, which became the “Crystal City” when the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works moved there and renamed itself Corning Glass in 1868, and where for a century afterward 15 or more glass cutting shops operated until 1962.
The museum has what may be the world’s largest collection of paperweights, chiefly from the workshops of Baccarat and Saint-Louis in France and also representing the work of Boston and Sandwich glass craftsmen in Massachusetts, the paperweight traditions of Millville, New Jersey and the encasing methods for intricate floral and other designs that were developed during the 19th century at the Corning Works. The historical collections have been supplemented by the bequests of many glass collectors since 1951.
These include a large collection of the glass designs of Frederick Carder, long-time superintendent of Steuben Glass who had an active career in Britain and Corning until the age of 96. The Rakow family endowed the museum’s glass library early in their long years of support, and after 1986 provided for an annual commission to enable an artist working in glass to explore a new area. The Heineman family collection of contemporary glass works executed between 1975 and 2000 was donated to the museum in 2005, and a collection of 2400 drinking glasses from ancient to modern times was given to the museum by gift and bequest from Jerome and Lucille Strauss, along with a gallery in which to house it and miscellaneous other objects.
In addition to the display of glass old and new, glass is made daily in Hot Glass shows and visitors can make glass in beginner sessions or take glassmaking courses at various levels of complexity in The Studio. Hot Glass shows are also produced on three Celebrity Cruise ships and there is a traveling Hot Glass road show for the public and a traveling exhibit for designers, GlassLab. The principles of glassmaking and new techniques in glass work are demonstrated in the museum’s Innovation Center. The museum offers several dining options during the day in its GlassMarket Café, and a shuttle bus operates to downtown Corning, which is also a 10-minute walk, where there are additional dining options. Hotel packages are offered in conjunction with motels, hotels and inns from 0.6 to 30 miles away.
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in May through September, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. It is closed on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Admission is $18.00 for adults, $15.30 for students and military personnel and free to those under 17, and is valid for 2 days. Reduced-price tickets ($14.00) may be purchased online and used after 4 p.m. There are discounts as well for local residents, those who have traveled on Celebrity cruise ships and those who wish to visit the Rockwell Art Museum as well, and museum members get in free. The museum has been voted number 136 of 150 favorite buildings in a poll by the American Institute of Architects, and after 60 years still follows its original mission “to tell the world about Glass”.