He sat casually in the corner of an office workspace, just waiting for his unlikely rise to fame. Born of sand and fire during artist Catherine Labonté’s live stream demo, this goofy-looking character could make you smile just by looking at him. And really, what more could he have hoped to accomplish than spreading simple happiness to an office filled with museum marketing employees? Then COVID-19 hit, and those employees packed up their desks and left to work from home for the foreseeable future, leaving Penguin Pierre in solitude—with no more faces to light up.
Then, when Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium shared videos of a penguin called Wellington waddling around their empty spaces; inspiration struck! Only, Pierre couldn’t waddle around the Museum… he’s made of glass. Except, could he?!
Eager to bring the light-hearted joy of Pierre to others during such a scary, uncertain moment, I asked a colleague to take Pierre around the Museum and capture a couple of silly pictures we could share on social media. None of us could believe it when the post quickly reached nearly 200,000 people who thanked us for our “good humor” and for “making me smile.” We all imitated Pierre and shook our tail feathers with excitement, knowing we’d brought a few moments of happiness into people’s lives. Included in the hundreds of comments was a chorus of requests for “more photos.”
With special permission to return to the Museum for one afternoon, I arrived with my camera in tow and a list of ideas for penguin poses. Soon, a social media series was born. Every other day, our followers could see what Pierre was up to at the empty Museum.
Some days, Pierre could be found sitting on a pile of glass ice (or “cullet”) in the Amphitheater Hot Shop, social distancing from his Glasstronaut friend on the moon. Or he could be seeking out company reflected in a gorgeous work of contemporary glass. One day, he stopped into our Conservation Lab, safety glasses over his eyes. Another day, he supervised a little construction taking place in a gallery, hard hat firmly on his head. One afternoon, he took a nap and dreamed of glass fish. On one occasion, the solitude got to him and he sat in the middle of a pile of papers strewn about the floor. But he regrouped and started learning new tricks: like flameworking and mixing a hot glass demonstration in our AV booth.
He did a lot of exploring in our Shops, where he encountered his penguin brother, made by the same artist, Catherine Labonté. An unexpected and delightful outcome of this social series was the fact that so many people wanted a bit of Pierre in their own homes—“as a symbol of the resilience of this time,” wrote one Facebook commenter. Small versions of him that were available in our online retail store quickly sold out!
And we began to realize this was more than a feel-good social campaign. Pierre was bringing smiles to more faces than he—or we—could have ever expected. That’s a big accomplishment for a little penguin. He was connecting with people, helping them escape the fear that filled the rest of their news feeds, even if only for a few seconds every other day. People grew to rely on Pierre’s adventures, wondering where they’d find him next—what antics he’d be up to. They hoped he was staying safe and wasn’t too lonely.
And somehow it helped to know—even for our own staff—that Pierre was keeping two big, googly eyes on the museum we’d left behind.
But Pierre’s work was just getting started. There were telling signs: like the day he served as back-up for our security staff, or when we spotted him disinfecting a conference room. Then there was the time he was convinced he knew so much about the Museum that he was ready to answer questions at our info desk. Pierre’s confidence—and our followers’ confidence in him—helped us hatch an idea.
Pierre is a safe space amid uncertainty. Completely unintentionally, he’d become an unofficial spokes-bird for our Museum—a squawk people trusted. So, we decided to make him our Safety Guide to help people adjust to visiting our Museum once again!
A suite of clever graphics and some funny penguin puns later, and Pierre became a central figure in our reopening strategy. Pierre will be on display to greet people in the Admissions Lobby, donning his mask and ensuring they’re doing the same. He’ll keep everyone cool as they go through thermal scans to check temperatures. He’ll make sure everyone maintains a safe wingspan from fellow visitors. He’ll guide people through new traffic patterns by having them follow in his webbed footsteps. And he’ll make sure everyone has a safe and fun day at the Museum.
We know that what’s going on in the world right now is heavy. Museums are places to get a respite from some of the external stressors—places to disconnect from it all and reconnect with creativity and inspiration. But we realize there’s an element of stress just walking into public spaces right now. We hope that kids and adults alike who enter The Corning Museum of Glass will find a little comfort in the big, goofy eyes of Penguin Pierre. And that he’ll bring smiles to even more faces, even though they may be obscured by masks. And really, what more could a glass penguin hope to accomplish in his glassy penguin life?