Kelly Conway, the Museum’s new curator of American glass, came to the Museum in September. We recently spoke about her background as a specialist in nineteenth and early twentieth century American glass and what she has planned for the Museum’s American collection.
How did you get interested in glass?
People always ask me that because it is such a specific field. I always say that I come by it honestly because I grew up in Toledo, Ohio which is known as the Glass City, and now I’m in Corning, which is known as the Crystal City.
My dad worked for Owens Corning Fiberglass his whole career, and often reminded me not to run my hands over the fiberglass insulation in the attic. I also visited the Toledo Museum of Art which has an extraordinary collection of historical and contemporary glass. I remember going to the Libbey Glass Factory Outlet as a kid. We would take visitors from out of town, and we were very conscious about not knocking into the glasses. I remember it feeling very crowded. The Libbey Glass Factory is still there in operation. I was able to tour it last year for the first time, and it was really exciting for me as a curator to observe the mechanization in process. I played golf in high school, and the team was called the Glass City Girls Golf League. Of course, all our trophies were made of glass!
Growing up in Toledo, I had an enormous awareness of glass as a material. Then I became interested in history in high school and studied American history in college. During my sophomore year, I interned at a living history museum, Conner Prairie, just north of Indianapolis, IN. Suddenly my eyes were opened to all these different jobs in a museum. I was able to work directly with historical objects, and I developed a real affinity for how they were a tangible connection to the past. When I was investigating graduate school programs, I didn’t want to go through a classroom situation where they would teach “this is how to be a curator.” I wanted to study the objects. I completed a master’s degree at the Parsons School of Design and the Smithsonian Associates in historical decorative arts—furniture, silver, ceramics, textiles and glass. And I was fortunate enough to learn from the best teachers and curators in the field.
I remember coming to Corning for the first time as a graduate student years ago. I still have the picture of the first time I visited the Frederick Carder Gallery in the Museum. It’s here at my desk so I always remember my first trip to Corning. It was during that visit that my connection with glass really clicked. I just love it.
Tell me about American glass. Did you choose that focus from studying American history?
Yes, definitely. Because I studied American history in college, I decided to focus on American decorative arts in graduate school. While I was at the Chrysler Museum of Art, I was responsible for curating 3,000 years of glass history, and I loved that. I was never bored, and the histories always overlap. I appreciate that I’ve gotten to know the contemporary art field as well, particularly the relationships I formed with living artists working with the material. But really, my great love is American history, particularly the 19th century. And so it’s nice to be able to focus on that again. I find myself going back to a lot of things I haven’t thought about in a concentrated way for a while, and I have a whole new way of looking at material from that period now.
What are you looking forward to here in your role as the curator of American Glass?
I’m looking forward to bringing to life to the stories that are sitting there on the shelves in the galleries. These objects have stories and histories: who owned the glass, what they reflect about political or social history, how we lived our daily lives, what we ate or drank, and even the history of Corning, the city. I’m excited to uncover and share these stories. Hopefully visitors will appreciate the objects and connect with the past. My goal is always to get people excited about glass and look at it in a different way. It’s also really satisfying when I find a way to make the history of glass, or a specific object, something for people to relate to on a personal level.
Do you have any new acquisitions or exhibitions in the works?
No new acquisitions yet. Obviously, I’m very interested in the 19th century and a lot of the glass in our American collection was originally produced to be utilitarian. I’ve been exploring the history of food and drink in America, how we laid a table, and how we shopped and marketed glass. There are many vehicles for talking about glass and these topics may find outlets in digital interpretation, publications, lectures, the permanent gallery display, and special exhibitions. There are a lot of ways to talk about glass to a broad audience.
What led you to The Corning Museum of Glass? You first came here as a grad student.
My first trip here was as a graduate student, and I attended the annual scholarly seminar on glass just about every year, which enabled me to learn about a variety of topics and to network with scholars and collectors in the field. Each year it came to feel like seeing old friends.
The Corning Museum of Glass is the leader in the field for the history, art and science of glass. So if you love glass you have to come here, you just have to. You have to pursue your passions. I’m very fortunate that I get to work in a field I love at the best institution in the world for glass.
What is it about glass that draws you to studying the material?
I probably like a lot of the things that most people like about glass. I love that a lot of glass is brilliant and shiny. I love that there are so many different methods for manipulating it and that no two glass objects are alike. I love glass and light, the combination of the two is so powerful and manifests itself is so many ways. Glass has all the qualities and all the potential to create enormous beauty, and I do love that about it.
I think that glass still has this completely mysterious quality to it even after all of the time that human beings have been working with it. Artists and designers continually find ways to reinvent and reimagine glass. Corning Incorporated is doing that, and it’s exciting to be in close proximity to a company that’s so innovative, and reimagining what you can do with this material. It’s exciting, and it never gets tired that way. Glass has staying power in a certain way because the basic elements of glass are still always present.
What has been the most surprising thing since starting at the Museum?
One of the surprising things to me is the sheer amount of public inquiries that come to the desk of the curator. My favorites are the people who have a 19th century glassmaker in their family and want to come to Corning and see the objects made by their ancestors. They want to get a bibliography from the Library to do research and learn more about their family history. I find that it’s reassuring that the Museum is very accessible to everyone. We are here as a resource for questions of every nature related to glass. And generally, someone in the Museum will help you get the answer, if at all possible.
How has the move been, coming to Corning?
The move was very smooth. It was really exciting because I was able to buy a house, my first, having previously lived in major metropolitan areas. So, now I’m getting the house ready for the winter, and probably my first snowy winter in a very long time! I have boots and heavy coat, but I had to buy my first snow shovel.
And finally, last question. Do you have a favorite object in the collection?
I do, and I was hoping you would ask me that! My favorite object in the collection–and I normally wouldn’t ever choose, but I think it’s too obvious a choice not to say–are the Glass Slippers by Frederick Carder. I have a great affinity for shoes; my close friends know this about me!
You’re the curator – would you try them on?
I’ve joked that maybe I should try them on, but they look like they’re a little small for me. They’re probably very heavy to wear, and I could imagine that it’s not that comfortable to stand on a glass heel. Like some shoes I own, I simply enjoy looking at them as works of art!