The small city of Corning, New York (pop. 11,000), is situated 21 miles from the southern tip of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region. Despite its modest size, it contains the world headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, Corning Inc., a leading manufacturer of glass and ceramics. The firm moved to Corning in 1868, and it has been the bedrock of the city’s economy for more than 150 years. Currently, Corning is busy making glass vials for COVID-19 vaccines, as well as producing the glass used by Apple for its iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. But it has numerous other claims to fame. Back in the 1930s, the company made the mirror for Caltech’s 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory; later it provided the glass for the primary mirror in the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as the windows for NASA’s space shuttles. However, Corning’s most earth-shattering invention came in 1970, when four of its researchers produced the first functional fiber-optic cable, thereby ushering into existence the entire world of modern digital communication.
All of these accomplishments are illuminated in the remarkable Corning Museum of Glass, which the company founded in 1951. Before my visit, I had no idea that the museum would be so extensive. The shiny modern complex was comprehensively renovated in 2001 and has recently been the subject of a $64 million expansion project; the new Contemporary Art + Design Wing opened in 2015. Overall, the museum contains more than 50,000 glass objects, some up to 3,500 years old, and is now widely regarded as the most comprehensive glass collection in the world.
Before heading off to explore the galleries, I spent half an hour watching a glass-blowing demonstration. It was the kind of presentation that I’ve seen on many previous occasions, but this one was imaginatively staged and had an unusually clear and articulate presenter.
The museum’s astounding collection of antique glass begins with pieces from Mesopotamia and Egypt. After an hour, wandering among the display cases, I began to realize that a single visit would be wholly insufficient to do justice to the extraordinary (and priceless) objects on display. I lingered for a while in the Glass of the Romans section, before heading to Glass in the Islamic World, and Early Northern European Glass. Lunchtime was approaching and there were still 1,000 years to go before the present day.
I decided to grab a snack in the museum’s pleasant café, and to spend the remainder of my time in the Contemporary Glass Gallery. This turned out to contain more than 70 works, many large-scale, all created within the past 25 years. Most of the artists, with the exception of Dale Chihuly, were unknown to me, but no doubt this reflected my ignorance rather than their obscurity. What was everywhere apparent, however, was a dazzling combination of artistry and imagination.
Before setting off on the four-hour drive back to New York, I spent a while browsing in the museum’s enormous shop, which takes up much of the first floor. There, it is possible to purchase the famous Steuben crystal, which Corning still makes in limited quantities. (Corning sold the century-old Steuben business in 2008, along with its Manhattan store, but reacquired it three years later.)
Although my visit was purely a by-product of my trip to the Finger Lakes, the Corning Museum of Glass is sufficiently remarkable to be considered a destination in its own right. It has been a long time since I have been so unexpectedly impressed.