The two main industries of New York State’s Finger Lakes region are agriculture and glass. The agriculture is visible everywhere, from the orchards to the vineyards. But the glass may come as a surprise to the uninitiated visitor. Yet for more than 150 years the town of Corning has been a world leader in the manufacture and technical innovation in glass. So where better to explore glass in its many and varied forms than at the fabulous and creative Corning Museum of Glass?
Corning and the History of Glass
The Corning Glass Works was originally based in New York City but in 1868 it relocated to Corning (the existing materials and equipment were loaded onto a barge and transported along the Chenung River). The coming of the railways and the opening of the Erie Canal put Corning at the centre of transport links, and it was conveniently located for raw materials. The company subsequently developed a range of homewares, including the famous Pyrex brand. However, it has always been at the forefront of innovation. Today it is known for its advanced optics and for the manufacture of components for items as diverse as cars, pharmaceutical packaging and iPhones.
The Corning Museum of Glass is a part of this story. Founded in 1951 it is an impressive building with glass walls (naturally!) and almost 50,000 exhibits. It showcases the history of glass, as used in both design and manufacturing. A Contemporary Glass area was added in 2015.
Exploring the History of Glass
The Corning Museum of Glass takes you through 35 centuries of glass making. Starting at the very beginning, in Mesopotamia around 2000 BC, the Museum traces the origins of glass making and the different uses of glass. There are galleries full of glass homewares, ornaments and jewellery. I particularly enjoyed the stained glass and the 20th century design. There were pieces by Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright, and by American artists influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites.
Then there is the Glass Innovation Centre, a sort of mini-science museum. Here you can explore the science of optics or learn about glass chemistry. There are several hands-on interactive exhibits, making it a fun place to explore.
Contemporary Design at the Corning Museum of Glass
Although Corning has always been associated with industrial rather than art glass, the Museum has a section devoted to contemporary design. This is set out like an art museum, with intricately crafted pieces designed to catch the light and please the eye.
Then there is the glass blowing. I watched a demonstration by the Museum’s team of professional glassblowers, an impressive display of heating, blowing and shaping resulting in a delicately patterned plate in many hues. I even had a go myself, putting on protective glasses and a sleeve (necessary as the temperatures soar up to about 2000 degrees C). With a lot of assistance from a glassblower – it is a highly skilled process – I made a glass flower. In my own small way, I had become a part of Corning’s long history of glass making.