Katherine (Kate) Larson came to The Corning Museum of Glass in 2016 as a curatorial assistant, but was recently promoted to Assistant Curator of Ancient and Islamic Glass. We took time to sit down with Kate and talk about her new position and her passion for ancient glass.
Talk a bit about your job responsibilities as Assistant Curator of Ancient and Islamic Glass.
Since our institutional mission is to tell the world about glass, my personal mission within this institution is to tell the world — including visitors both online and in the Museum — specifically about ancient and Islamic glass. The ancient and Islamic collection represents some of the oldest objects in our collection, dating back 35 centuries. It includes the glass from Egypt, the Near East, Greece, and Rome: all of those great ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern empires. The collection goes as late as the end of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, so really there’s a huge chronological scope that I’m responsible for.
I also work with the education department to help train docents and develop programming. I’ll be working with registrars to help update our records in the database and online, and in the galleries so that we’ve got the most up-to-date information. I work with the collections team to install objects and make case changes. I also host colleagues and researchers from around the world by giving tours and working with them when they come to study our collections. Finally, I research and publish ancient glass from archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. So basically, if it has to do with the ancient and Islamic collection, I’m the go-to person.
In a typical day, what different types of activities could someone find you doing?
Well, as you can see from my desk right now (see photo above), there are a lot of books. So, I read a lot of books, I do a lot of research. At this point in time – even though I’ve been here for a year-and-a-half — I’m really trying to learn the collection better, find out what we have. Just the other day I discovered we have this wonderful bracelet from the pre-Roman La Tène culture of central Europe (2005.1.2). I also read all the new research that’s coming out, so I’m as up-to-date as possible on the current state of the field.
What is your favorite part of your job?
From the moment I came to Corning, I found that people here love glass. During my [Ph.D.] dissertation, I constantly had to explain to people why glass was important and interesting. But here, everybody is familiar with it and it’s so fun to have such great colleagues who are passionate about the material and take a lot of pride in what they do. So that’s the best part of the job — working with glass every day with knowledgeable and enthusiastic colleagues.
What’s special about CMoG’s collection?
I think it’s not an overstatement to say we have the best collection of ancient glass in the United States. And for me, as an ancient glass specialist, it’s an incredible privilege and opportunity to be able to work with this material every day. You can’t see so much glass history in one place just about anywhere else, really. Even when there are opportunities for us to acquire ancient and Islamic glass that meets our acquisition criteria, chances are that we already have a similar piece. Our collection is very comprehensive.
The really special thing about our collection is the part that visitors don’t see on exhibit — the large numbers of fragments, beads, and other objects that we have in our storerooms but are accessible online and to researchers. Scholars who work in the United States don’t always have access to materials from archaeological sites in Europe and Asia, and this is the only place you can come to see certain kinds of material. Former Museum director David Whitehouse did an excellent job publishing a lot of the collection, so it’s well-cataloged. My job at this point is to go back through and make sure those records are current and we are presenting them to visitors in an accurate and compelling way.
What object in the museum do you wish all visitors could see?
I am working on a book that will highlight about 50 objects from the ancient and Islamic collection with beautiful photography and short essays (look for it in 2018!). This project has given me the opportunity to get better acquainted with some of the signature objects in the collection. This [55.1.66] is a piece that you can see in the Origins of Glassmaking primary case. It dates to the 8th to 6th century B.C., so almost 2,000 years ago, which is a period when glassmaking had been in decline for a couple hundred years. It’s from Assyria (the area of modern-day Syria and Iraq). First of all, I had seen pictures of this object in a lot of books before I came to Corning, and it had (literally) loomed large in my brain. But when I saw it in person for the first time, I realized it’s very small — only about the height of a pencil. And something that I didn’t appreciate about it until we had it off exhibit a couple months ago is that it’s really lopsided. It’s so uneven and it shows that glassmakers were still experimenting with glass and they didn’t really know how to make it. They’re trying to make these different kinds of forms but they’re not super successful all the time. And the other amazing thing about it is how heavy it is. It’s small, but it weighs almost 4 pounds. The inside of the bowl is hollow, but the foot is totally solid which is one of the things that makes it so heavy. We also don’t quite know how it was used. There are holes in the top of the handles, so it probably had a lid attached to it at one point. It might have held perfume or cosmetics or something like that, based on the size and the general shape. But it’s a mystery. It’s just so cool and it feels so personal to me; I feel really connected to the person who made it.
There are only a handful of glass vessels that were made in Assyrian workshops of the 8th and 7th century: this one, and a couple at the British Museum. So, it’s very emblematic, and very indicative of a particular style and moment in glass history. It’s definitely an important object in the history of glass.
Have any questions about ancient or Islamic glass? Kate will be participating in #AskACurator Day on September 13 from 10 to 11 am. Join @corningmuseum on Twitter and be sure to use the hashtag #AskACurator.