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"Curiously Interesting: A Scholarly Eye on All Things Odd and Glass"
2007-04-01 until 2007-05-01
Corning Museum of Glass
Corning, NY, USA

Beginning April 1st, The Corning Museum of Glass will dig into its vast collections to showcase more than a hundred wonderfully odd and mysterious objects fashioned of glass, dating from antiquity to the present day. Ancient amulets to ward away evil; trick drinking glasses; an optical model of the human eye; and variously tinted, tortoiseshell rimmed lens worn by Victorian tourists to frame suitably artistic views of nature – these are among the odd objects in “Curiosities of Glassmaking,” on view through October 21, 2007. “Curiosities of Glassmaking” invites visitors to consider how glass has been used to mimic nature; its mystical and scientific uses over the centuries; and its use by industry to produce an array of everyday items, some quite peculiar and others inspired.

The exhibition title refers to a popular 19th-century manual, Curiosities of Glass Making (1849), published in London by the well-known glassmaker Apsley Pellatt. The impulse to collect and display curiosities is both timeless and universal, of course, and American art institutions such as the Corning Museum have evolved in part from the European tradition of the cabinet of curiosities, which juxtaposes odd, intriguing, and unusual objects, often including archaeological artifacts, geological specimens, and exotic trophy animals.

In that spirit, the exhibition features apotropaic glass, or glass used to deflect evil, in the form of ancient and modern eye beads, Japanese magatama amulets (curved beads often found inhumed in mounded graves as offering to deities), and witch balls. Popular in 18th-and 19th-century English and American homes, witch balls were often filled with bits of string and other things meant to confuse and repel witches.

Other sections of the exhibition will look at unusual vessels made throughout history, glass that imitates other materials like semi-precious stones and textiles, and glass that naturally occurs in nature. Examples of glass made in nature will include fulgurites (glass made when lightning strikes sand) and tektites (glass from meteorite impacts), as well as unusual, man-made glass specimens such as uranium glass (radioactive) and neodymium glass (which changes color in different lighting). A sample of trinitite, a glass made during the test explosion of the atomic bomb in White Sands, NM, in 1945, will also be on display.

Glass and the natural world have long inspired artists. A section of the exhibition will showcase works in glass by Kiki Smith (Tail, 1997), Michael Rogers (Murmur of the Bees, 2006) and other artists whose work reflects nature.

Unusual household and medical glass products will show the innovative uses of glass over time, as well as the attempts of industry to use glass in place of other materials. For instance, the exhibition features a Silver Streak electric iron, made by Corning Glass Works in 1946, of molded borosilicate glass, when metal was in short supply. Visitors will also see glass bullets and 18th-century glass fire grenades. Medical products will include glass eyes, an antique woman’s glass urinal, and ancient bleeding glasses.

Other highlights include glass funeral items and reliquaries and a shining glass slipper made by the founding director of Steuben Glass, Frederick Carder, for a film production of Cinderella that was never realized. An illustrated copy of a 1903 patent granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for J. Karwowski’s Method of Preserving the Dead in solid blocks of glass also will be on display.

In around 1908, the New York Sun reported on the unusual uses to which glass was being put by inventors of the day. An article entitled “Odd Uses of Glass” highlights a number of curiosities, from the fabrication of glass pavements to the fashioning of dresses of glass cloths. The news report ends: “In all the world, there is but one collection of glass flowers, and only two men who can make them, it is said. The collection belongs to Harvard University…”

All the better, then, that the famous, life-like flameworked flower and plant models made for Harvard University at the turn of the 19th century will be the subject of the Museum’s major summer exhibition, “Botanical Wonders: The Story of the Harvard Glass Flowers” (May 18 – November 25, 2007). “Curiosities of Glassmaking” is on view concurrently.

“Curiosities of Glassmaking” is organized by Tina Oldknow, the Museum’s curator of modern glass.

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