Any day where you get to play with hot glass is a good day.
Don’t worry — I had an experienced spotter who did all of the dangerous and challenging parts. Even with outside aid, there are few activities as exciting as pulling on molten glass like it was so much taffy.
The Corning Museum of Glass is so much more than a place to look at previously made glass objects, although you can wander through 35 centuries worth of glass craft in about three hours. This museum, however, is simply a static place where history is in glass (no pun intended) cases.
CMOG was founded in 1951 and was a gift from Corning Glass Works intended to show what glass can do. The short answer is that it can do more than you’d ever imagined.
Every year, 400,000 visitors learn that glass goes in our ovens, allows our communications, and yes, decorates our desks. Without glass, we’d never have been able to see things that were both very large and far away as well as very small and very close. Glass can be strong enough to stop a bullet or be as delicate to shatter like an eggshell.
One of the highlights in the more traditional gallery space are the glass plants, invertebrate sea creatures, and prosthetic eyes from the Blaschka collection. During the mid-to-late 1800s, the Blashka brothers, who lived in what was then called Bohemia, made finely detailed glass models of specimens plucked from the natural world. While the living materials would quickly fade, the models were both highly accurate and easily studied. It’s hard to not stand in front of the case for hours and stare at the results.
There are live shows, too. No, not the theme park sort of live show, where costumed characters sing and dance. These shows are live demonstrations. You can learn about optical fibers and flameworked glass, which is frequently found in beads or figurines. The centerpiece is the hot glass show.
Approximately every half hour, an experienced “gaffer,” which is a glass worker, demonstrates from start to finish how an object is made. The stage is a special one, with two furnaces and a transparent barrier between the audience and the fires. Two cameras -- including one inside a furnace -- connect to a video screen and offer close-ups of the action.
What’s most striking is how collaborative glass-making is. The lead gaffer is clearly in charge of how the piece will be made, what shape it will be, and which colors it will contain. A second gaffer is mic’ed and keeps up a running commentary about what’s going on while he acts as a second set of hands in the creation of the piece. It’s like an exhaustively rehearsed dance between the two.
Actually, that’s the second most striking thing about the hot glass show. The first is how amazing it is to watch someone take blobs of molten glass and shape them into a beautiful vase.
In addition to the exhibits and live shows, the museum also commissions new glass art and supports between 10 and 15 resident artists each year. There is a studio where artists can explore new ways of working, a research library where anyone can explore the old ways of working, and a Make Your Own glass studio where almost anyone can give glass a go.
Which is how I found myself decked out in gloves, goggles and an apron pulling on red hot glass with a giant-sized pair of tweezers. The goal was to make a curly stemmed flower without setting myself or the building on fire. Mission accomplished — and the flower’s not half-bad looking either.
If getting that close to 2,300=degree glass sounds like a nightmare and/or you have kids, there are more options for getting your hands glassy. Anyone 4-years old or older can find something to make, including picture frames or night light covers. Older kids — from 10 and up — have a few more options, like flameworked pendants and beads. All ages can take on glass blowing an ornament or sculpture. The only requirements are that your child is old enough to follow directions and blow out a birthday candle. Indeed, plenty of kids were hard at work in the studio while I was creating my flower.
All of these extra opportunities to interact with what we generally don’t notice during our daily routines are what makes the Corning Museum of Glass more than a history lesson.