Major Exhibition will feature 3,500 Years of Glass Beads

This summer, a major exhibition at the Museum will explore glass beads and beaded objects made by various cultures, representing 3,500 years of human history. On view from May 18, 2013, to January 5, 2014, Life on a String: 35 Centuries of the Glass Bead will showcase, for the first time, many important works from the Museum’s large historical glass bead collection as well as objects on loan from seven institutions.

Chevron bead

Chevron Bead, cased, drawn, ground. Italy, Venice, about 17th–18th centuries. 5 cm x 4.5 cm. (66.3.10A)

“Glass beads are truly remarkable objects—they are the miniature masterpieces of the Museum’s collection,” says Karol Wight, executive director and curator of ancient and Islamic glass. “These works are important not only for their artistry, but also for the way they are used to convey social and political messages, and for the manner in which beading traditions have been carried on over many centuries.”

Beaded Icon of the Koimesis, mold-blown, drawn, pressed. Russia, probably late 19th century. H. 52.6 cm, W. 23.4 cm, Th. 6.1 cm. Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, 97.3.76.

Life on a String will explore the use of glass beads for fashion and ornament, as symbols of power and wealth, as traded goods, and as objects of ritual, as well as illuminate the processes of beadmaking and beadworking. Curated by Adrienne V. Gennett and designed by noted industrial and product designer Harry Allen, the exhibition will present nearly 200 objects, many of which have never before been on display.

Highlights of the exhibition include early Venetian chevron and millefiori beads, Roman mosaic beads, West Africa bodom beads, Egyptian eye beads, Chinese horned eye beads, Japanese magatama beads, Bohemian beads imitating precious stones, North American beadworked garments, and contemporary beaded objects by Joyce Scott and David Chatt.

108 Meditations in Saffron, David Chatt

108 Meditations in Saffron, David K. Chatt (American, b. 1960), United States, Seattle, Washington, 2006. Glass beads; thread, found objects. Dimensions variable. (2010.4.125)

The size of glass beads often belies their importance. They can represent wealth, symbolize gender and family relationships, or indicate social status, all through meaning signified in their color and patterning. Economic and political relationships around the globe—especially during the period of European colonization—are embodied in the beads manufactured in Europe and distributed in Africa and North America. Their styles influenced indigenous bead production, and ultimately, beads made in formerly colonized lands followed a reverse course back to Europe.

Beaded Coronet (Orikobofo), sewn, embroidered. West Africa, Nigeria, Yoruba, 1960–1970. H. 15.2 cm, Diam. 18.8 cm. Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, 96.3.7.

Traded globally for centuries, glass beads are among the earliest attempts at glass production and have been found at ancient glass manufacturing sites in the eastern Mediterranean from the second millennium B.C. The beads in the exhibition demonstrate the variations in manufacturing techniques used to create beads and beaded objects through time. A loom for beading and molds used to make powdered glass bodom beads will be on display along with images of beads being produced around the world, to illuminate the vast and rich history of techniques for bead production.

Bodom Bead, powder glass. West Africa, 19th century. W. 3.2 cm, Diam. 4.8 cm. Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, 73.3.351.

Bodom Bead, powder glass. West Africa, 19th century. W. 3.2 cm, Diam. 4.8 cm. (73.3.351)

A new companion book, Glass Beads: Selections from The Corning Museum of Glass, by exhibition curator Adrienne V. Gennett, former curatorial assistant of The Corning Museum of Glass, now assistant curator of collections and education at the University Museums at Iowa State University, with contributions by Tina Oldknow, the Museum’s curator of modern glass, will be available to purchase from the Museum’s GlassMarket ( in May 2013. The book features fifty highlights of beads and beaded objects in the Museum’s collection.

During the run of the exhibition, the Museum will offer special narrated flameworking demonstrations to show techniques used to make glass beads, and visitors will have the opportunity to create beads in hands-on Make Your Own Glass experiences. On October 18-19, 2013, the Museum will host its Annual Seminar on Glass focused on glass beads and beadwork through time and from around the world.

Lenders to the exhibition include The Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Eliot Elisofon Photo Archives at the National Museum of African Art, Rockwell Museum of Western Art, Fenimore Art Museum, Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, and Longyear Anthropology Museum at Colgate University.