By Esha Samajpati
Who drives four and a half hours to visit a glass museum on a Sunday? Our friends initially thought we were crazy, but pretty soon my husband’s monologue on fiber optics confirmed us as kind of geeky.
Undeterred, we set off for Corning in upstate New York, a city whose history and economy has been shaped by the corporate headquarters of Corning Incorporated, a world leader in specialty glass and ceramics.
Making glass since the 19th century, Corning Inc. has since moved from consumer products to hi-tech components for consumer electronics, mobile emissions control, telecommunications and life sciences.
Not far from Corning’s main source of prosperity, stands the Corning Museum of Glass. Conveniently located off exit 46 on I-86, right in the middle of the Finger Lakes region, it has done its share for the city by promoting the glass industry.
Also, being the world’s largest glass museum has ensured a steady stream of visitors and more opportunities for business and growth.
Setting foot inside the lobby and onto the GlassMarket, I was not that impressed. Okay, I thought, I am surrounded by jewelry, collectibles and ornaments made of glass. Big deal. While getting our tickets, I discovered that the GlassMarket is one of the largest resources for books, videos and images about glassmaking and glass history.
That explains the size, I thought. Still skeptical about spending the better part of the day inside a museum dedicated to glass, I headed straight to the Coffee Bar hoping to recharge my waning enthusiasm. Grabbing hot lattes and corned beef sandwiches from the Museum Café, we had to make do with a quick brunch before gliding up the escalators to the upper level.
Thirty-Five Centuries of Glass Artistry
We entered the Glass Collection Gallery to find a wide array of objects from the “Voices of Contemporary Glass” Exhibition. To the discerning eye, each has a unique appeal but what caught my attention was a pair of colorful vessels.
Further research revealed that they were made from fused and thermo-formed glass threads by Mary Ann Zynsky, who used the colors of a macaw for inspiration. Intrigued by the correlation, I was beginning to see why things were about to get interesting.
I could have dwelled there forever but a glance at the Museum Event Plan suggested that we should head towards the stage if we wanted to catch the Hot Glass Show.
Hot Glass Show
On our way to the show, we got distracted by the glass-working tools in the lobby and ended up reaching an already full hall. Finding a vantage point, we settled down to watch something we have used all our lives without paying any attention to how it was made. A simple glass vase.
Actually, the process involved is not that simple. It requires a lot of skill and patience. Cameras inside the glowing furnace and an on-going narration made sure we didn’t miss much. The glassmaker and his assistant mixed minerals, blew through the blowpipe and cut off molten glass with scissors.
Each step was more fascinating than the last. Throughout the process, the long blowpipe had to be rotated because as we came to know, the constant turning prevents the molten glass from falling off the pipe. The show lasted for about twenty minutes, at the end of which the hot vase was placed in a freezer amidst a flurry of applause.
Saving the best for the last, we followed the signs to the Museum’s Innovation Center which for me, was an eye-opener of sorts. I had never before put together the various applications of glass in our daily life in one long string of coherent display.
Televisions, mirrors, scientific instruments, kitchen appliances, fiber optics, bottles, windshields, bullet-proof glass, and shatter-proof glass to name a few.
Interactive exhibits of technological developments combined with charts and videos explaining each breakthrough while lauding the inventors made for a remarkable display. Though we missed the Optical Fiber Demo, the discovery and wide-spread use of the technology was chronicled via graphic charts.
“Play and learn” seemed to be the motto of the exhibits. In one afternoon, we caught a hot glass show, flameworking demo, bent glass, broke glass, learnt the basics of glassmaking and gained an understanding of optical fiber. All in a day’s work.
For an additional fee we could have made our own glass souvenir with expert glassmakers in a workshop, instead we chose to explore the city.
Walking out of the museum, we crossed the Centerway Bridge (also known as the Pedestrian Bridge) spanning the Chemung River and came across a bunch of runners doing the last lap of the Wineglass Marathon.
In a city famous for making glasses, it is only apt that the finishing line sports a “wineglass” banner. Wrapped in foil blankets, the runners shook hands with the organizers as their names were announced. Close by the bridge, free goodies, picnickers, lazy dogs, sellers and buyers made for a merry afternoon scene in and around the Riverfront Centennial Park.
Using stone from a nearby quarry, the Clock Tower was constructed in 1883 and soon became a salient feature of the brick-paved Centerway Square. The clock was a gift from the heirs of the community’s founder, Erastus Corning.
Walking across the plaza, we came upon the Historic Market Street, located at the center of Corning’s downtown Gaffer District.
Lined with galleries, art studios, cafes, specialty shops and restaurants, both ends of the Market Street offered plenty in way of food and entertainment. Looking for a place to eat, we set out on a walking tour of Corning.
The air felt brisk as golden-yellow leaves crunched under our feet and Halloween decorations peeped out of shop windows. The marathon runners in their shiny foils and a handful of locals went about their business.
We finally decided on a casual eatery called Holmes Plate which had the “Specials of the Day” handwritten in chalk on a blackboard. It’s not surprising that after a world of fancy touch screens, I find something magical about a simple blackboard menu.
Friendly and warm, the place claimed to specialize in the area’s largest selection of craft and micro-brewery beer. Thinking of the long drive that awaited us, we had to skip the beer of course.
Also, being there for just a day, we couldn’t check out all the restaurants. Among them Thali of India, Sorge’s Restaurant and The Gaffer Grille and Tap Room deserve mention. Over the years, these buildings have become an integral part of the downtown landscape.
More than half a decade old, Sorge’s Restaurant was gutted by a fire in December 2008. It will be again opened for business in March 2010.
On that optimistic note, we started walking back to our car, all my initial doubts replaced by happy thoughts of a day spent well. Who knew that geeky could be fun too?
Detailed information on The Corning Museum of Glass:
Shopping online at the Glass Market
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