I think it was the first time I ever asked the TSA to look at something more closely in our hand luggage. My wife had forgotten to take out her laptop and her backpack was receiving a secondary inspection when the TSA agent said some sort of bowl or ceramic? My wife replied “yes “, but I elaborated “yes and she made it herself and she’s probably a little disappointed you didn’t ask to see it” (it turns out she was not).
You probably have heard of Corning, the company that was made famous by Pyrex. Or maybe you know them as the company that invented fiber optics that power your telephone and Internet or the company that makes Gorilla Glass for your iPhone. Corning is headquartered in Corning, New York near the Finger Lakes.
If Corning, New York, isn’t the nicest “company town” in the world, it is certainly in the running. One of the things that makes Corning New York stand out as a destination is the Corning Museum of Glass. The museum is at the same time an art museum, a history museum, a science museum, and a hands-on museum.
The museum currently hosts 460,000 visitors a year and the average visit is 4 and a half hours long. 20 to 25% of the visitors to the museum also take part, as we did, in their hands-on glassmaking experiences.
We started our tour of the Corning Museum in their newest wing which highlights glass art from the year 1990 until the present. My favorite piece of art may have been the simplest, it was the series of trees made out of old drinking glasses. The artist chose trees in particular because the manufacturing of glass resulted in acres and acres of forest being chopped down for fuel for the glass making industry in Europe. Corning itself became a home for glass manufacturing because of its access to coal from the coalfields of the U.S.
Our second gallery showed the technology behind the glass business. It showcased the invention of automated bottle making machines, the development of fiber optics from fused silica which was invented at Corning. If you don’t know how important this is to the Internet and telephony, then make sure you see the display of how many copper wires were originally replaced by a single fiber optic cable. Interestingly enough, the Corning engineer who developed the technology used in fiber optic’s actually invented it for making large telescope mirrors. That invention was a distraction from what he was supposed to be working on which was finding materials in between class and plastics. That work led to the invention of silicone.
We missed one show I want to see on the breaking of glass and how glass is made stronger, although I have from time to time conducted my own experiments in the strength of glass with my iPhone.
The next gallery shows the history of glass over 3500 years through one of the most impressive collections of glassware in the world. There are Egyptian glass objects from before the invention of glassblowing. There are Roman objects as the Romans invented so many of the techniques still in use today. There are glass bead mosaics large and small, and an impressive collection of cut class that once gave corning the nickname the Crystal city. The museum documents the rise of the studio class movement as artists like Chihuly and others gained access to affordable glass blowing technologies and furnaces that caused a renaissance in glass artwork in the 70s.
All of the above would be worth the price of admission even if you did nothing else (by the way, the price of admission for kids up to 17 is free). But if you only did the exhibits you’d be missing out on some of the best parts of the museum. The museum also has a number of glass blowing theaters where you can watch both local artists and guest artists create works of art. After you have seen the professionals do it, it’s your turn.
We took part in a two-hour workshop where we, with much help from Krista one of the local Corning Museum staff, created what they call a bird’s nest bowl.
We learned to gather glass from the collection of molten glass in one furnace, color it by dipping the molten glass into colored glass beads, blowing and shaping the glass. Between each step, the mixture again goes into the reheating furnace to keep it malleable. All the while the glass needs to be turned constantly so that it doesn’t drip off the rod and become molten glass artwork on the floor. The furnace temperatures were 2100-2300 degrees Fahrenheit and you can really feel that heat as you get close to them. I found it all the little intimidating as I worked with the molten glass, but the instruction was exceptional and very enabling. While the truth is that I helped make glass I certainly felt but I did enough to earn the Twitter #IMadeClass hashtag. Our bowls were left in an annealing furnace overnight to slowly cool down to a temperature that could go more safely in our luggage.
The museum has an interesting mobile exhibit that has been known to tour the country as well as exhibits now on Celebrity Cruise ships which are creating glassblowing fans in many different corners of the world. And their first meeting with Celebrity they tried to explain to them that it would be impossible to take the traditional natural gas burning glass furnaces and place them on a cruise ship. Impossible because of the amount of energy used to melt glass and because fire and molten things are generally not a good combination with boats and floaty things. But the Corning engineers took up the challenge and invented electric furnaces that work both at sea and in the mobile units. That’s one of the things I loved about the museum, As it highlights both cool technology and artistry.
My apologies to the people behind us on the line at TSA for monopolizing an agent for a couple of minutes as we talked about the experience of the Corning Glass Museum. She had always wanted to go and was even more inspired by seeing what we have made while we were there. I would be surprised if this conversation is not repeated many times in the future as other people see what we were able to do.