Audrey Whitty, the Museum’s new curator of European glass, came to Corning in May from the National Museum of Ireland. I recently sat down with her to hear about what she’s looking forward to in her new role.
What led you to The Corning Museum of Glass?
Corning has this amazing international reputation, and I’d met a number of colleagues from Corning through the years in Dublin—like Jane Shadel Spillman (retired curator of American glass) and Steve Koob (chief conservator)—so it wasn’t completely alien to me. Certainly the Journal of Glass Studies had always been on one of the shelves in my office through the years and I would also get Neues Glas and the New Glass Review.
When I saw the research possibilities along with the fact that it’s a very dynamic, changing environment here (with the new wing), I thought it would be a nice opportunity. I had been curator of three very distinct areas with Asian, ceramics and glass for 12 years. I figured it was time for a change and a new collecting challenge.
Tell us more about your time at the National Museum of Ireland.
I was there for 15 years, and I was curator since 2001. I was the youngest appointed curator in 30 years, so it was a great honor. It was a challenging role because there are so many artifacts: 30,000 artifacts. I have 11,000 to deal with now, so in a way it makes it much more focused. I really enjoyed my time at the National Museum of Ireland. It’s an amazing institution with 4.5 million objects and specimens, which most people don’t realize.
Did you initially study ceramics?
I’m an archaeologist by training. My bachelor’s degree is in history and archaeology, and my master’s is in archaeology, so even before I did my doctorate in the history of art, I was actually more geared towards the archaeological remains of glass.
And that is a good firm basis to have because you bring a different perspective to things. You’re constantly thinking of context. And, provenance is a huge deal to an archaeologist. Can you trace the object all the way back? And if you can’t, you have major question marks over whether you should accession the object. It makes you very thorough in making sure all the boxes are ticked—who’s had it at what stage in history—or else it’s a bit dodgy. But most of the time you don’t come across that. Thankfully people are usually very above board on what you’re offered for acquisition.
What are you looking forward to here at the Museum in your role as curator of European glass?
In terms of the areas of growth in the European collection, I would see collecting medieval stained glass as one because we don’t have very many pieces. Most are on display and the rest are small fragments that can be used for study purposes. And don’t get me wrong, that’s incredibly important, but you also want the general audience to experience medieval stained glass in all its glory. The pieces that we do have are of exceptional quality, but it’s a huge area for potential.
Another area would be vessel-based medieval glass. That amazing exhibition (which I certainly heard about in Dublin), Medieval Glass for Popes, Princes and Peasants, was a landmark show in terms of glass exhibitions. It’s such an unusual topic. You don’t usually see utilitarian glass objects from the medieval period. Beyond Venice was another hugely important show in terms of scholarship, and the beauty of the pieces on exhibition. If we can emulate something like the medieval glass show and the Venetian show, to that same high level, on a European subject, I think we’d be doing really well.
It sounds like you’ve got a full plate!
Always getting ahead of myself. I’m probably thinking twenty years down the road!
You also specialize in Asian art, tell us more about that.
Yes, and that’s another area for potential growth. In the past, there sometimes would be cultural patrimony problems with any archaeological material from China, Korea or Japan. Obviously, those countries quite rightly have very strict laws about the export of those sorts of artifacts. I think now we should really look at building upon the small collection we have. It might be small, but it is of huge quality. It would be great long term to do something wonderful with the Asian collection.
What is it about glass that draws you to studying the material?
Apart from metal, ceramic and stone, it’s the only thing that really survives. So from that point of view, it’s one of the most unbelievable trace remains of the past.
And I love its sheer beauty. The opacity of glass has always attracted me. I’m drawn to the fact that it can be translucent but also colored, and also the effect that light has on it, whether it be an ancient piece of glass or something from contemporary times.
Okay, now more about you—how have you been enjoying Corning?
I certainly have been enjoying it, it’s a beautiful town. My husband Manuel is from Germany, the northern part of Bavaria called Franconia. We have an awful lot of glass in the collection from Franconia actually, which is very interesting. Corning has a landscape not too dissimilar from where he grew up, which was outside Bamberg.
It’s more of a difference for me as an Irishwoman, because I’m from an island! I’m used to beaches and the smell of the ocean and I’ve always lived near the sea, so it’s a major change, but a really nice one. I love the rolling hills and the forestry. I walk to work every morning so I like to take it in as I walk around.
Corning may be small, but it does pack a punch way beyond what it is in terms of its size. Everyone in the world has heard of Corning, whether it be for Corning, Inc. and the scientific glass, or the Museum. Not many small towns can lay claim to that, particularly reaching outside of the United States. I’ve really been enjoying it.
My daughter was only 7 weeks old when we came here in May. She had no problem with the time change or acclimatizing to the hot weather. She’s become a little American already…with her Irish passport! We’re living right here in Corning, it’s great, and we’ve taken the town to our hearts.
Was there any American lingo that you didn’t understand?
I think it’s more that people didn’t understand me! The Irish can have an unusual turn of phrase, and our speech can be very quick, so I’ve actually had to really slow down.
I think people are exceptionally friendly here. The Irish have a reputation for being very friendly. I would say the people in Corning have been even more so. That to me has been very welcoming, like a home away from home.
And that’s about it really. We couldn’t buy a car without American drivers’ licenses, so my husband has just passed his driver’s test this month. I’m waiting to do it in September or October. For Manuel, from Germany, it’s the same side of the road, but for me from Ireland it’s the left-hand side, so that’s why I’m leaving it until later.
Is there anything else that you want to share?
I couldn’t do it without my husband, because he’s at home with our daughter Saoirse. We’re so lucky that he’s willing to be a full-time Dad and let me settle into the position here. I want to say a massive thanks to Manuel.
Museum Members at the Supporting level and above are invited to Conversations with Dr. Audrey Whitty on September 28, 2013 at 11:00am. Dr. Whitty will discuss the role of Irish glass, both historical and contemporary, in the larger context of decorative art objects. Join us for an excellent opportunity to meet and get to know our new curator.
Free & open only to Supporting-level Members & above ($250+).
RSVP to [email protected] or 607.438.5600.