Curating a Lifetime: Jane Shadel Spillman, a memorial

Jane Shadel Spillman

The Corning Museum of Glass is deeply saddened by the passing of Jane Shadel Spillman, our former curator of American glass who retired in 2013 after a CMoG career that spanned nearly five decades. Jane joined the Museum’s 13-person staff in June 1965 as a research assistant and curator of education and became an internationally recognized expert on American glass, developing the impressive collection we have today.

During her tenure at the Museum, Jane was a prolific author, beginning with Glassmaking: America’s First Industry (1976), a 35-page catalog in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name in celebration of the nation’s bicentennial. It was the Museum’s first major exhibition after the 1972 flood. This was followed by numerous books and catalogs, countless speeches and lectures, and the acquisition of thousands of objects for the Museum’s American glass collection and The Rakow Research Library holdings. Not to mention, the friendships forged across the globe, with glass amateurs and professionals alike, cementing Jane’s reputation as an expert in her field.

“Jane was a force within the glass and museum communities and helped shape our Museum for nearly half a century,” said Karol Wight, president and executive director. “Her contributions—in nearly every area—were numerous, and her impact in the field continues to be felt today.”

Karol introducing Jane at Jane’s retirement party in 2013.

Jane’s official Museum biography and a 2013 blog post celebrating her retirement, provide more information on Jane and her career at The Corning Museum of Glass.

Jane Shadel Spillman impacted so many lives in the glass world, from all walks of life, and her loss will be deeply felt. Friends and colleagues that worked with Jane, heard her speak, learned from her, walked beside her, or just crossed paths once or twice, have shared their remembrances.  

Dwight Lanmon, former director, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“I met Jane when I attended my first Corning Seminar on Glass in 1966. A graduate of the Cooperstown Program, she had been a member of the Museum staff for a year and was in charge of education, but she also assisted the staff in their research and display installations. Jane became assistant curator in charge of American glass when I joined the Museum in 1973. She blossomed in her new role, and her expertise and public recognition grew quickly. She was promoted to associate curator in 1975 and to full curator in 1977.

“In her 48 years at the Museum, Jane conveyed her enthusiasm for American glass in hundreds of articles and books and spoke at countless seminars (including 36 times at the annual Corning Seminar on Glass, a record). Throughout all this, she displayed a secure grasp of the details of American glassmaking history and shared them with delight, humor, and enthusiasm. Those who are interested in this field owe her a debt of immense gratitude. And I count myself among them. We who knew her and worked alongside her realize that we have been in the presence of someone who played a role immensely larger than her physical self. Her publications are a lasting tribute to her scholarship, and we will remember her fondly whenever we see one.”

Beth Hylen, former reference librarian, The Rakow Library:

“I knew Jane when she was American Glass curator at CMoG, and so much more. I remember summers during college days when I was a tour guide at the Corning Glass Center (later CMoG). Jane often stopped to chat with me, and she offered to introduce me to the CMoG librarians. We all had lunch around a picnic table at the “ACME” building then toured the library. I was so inspired that I decided to be an art librarian! Jane was a wonderful teacher, and she was always delighted to share her knowledge of glass. I remember when she pulled out pieces of cut glass and pressed glass and helped me learn to identify the differences by touch. So many wonderful memories!

“Jane broke the glass ceiling, too. One of the few professional women employed by the Glass Center at the time, Jane Spillman was the first woman invited to Corning Glass Works Executive Club. She continued to be a mentor to young professionals at the Museum and the wider glass world.”

Rick Price, former head of publications, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“Jane Spillman was a good friend and a highly valued colleague for many years. The first book I edited for the Museum was Glass from World’s Fairs, 1851–1904, which was written by Jane and published in 1986 to accompany that year’s special exhibition. Having visited four world’s fairs, I shared Jane’s interest in that subject. We agreed that the smaller fairs were the best and most memorable; I especially loved the 1962 Seattle fair, and she was partial to the 1982 exposition in Knoxville.

“Our greatest collaboration, however, took place when Jane stepped in to complete the second volume of Kenneth M. Wilson’s Mt. Washington & Pairpoint Glass (2011), an exhaustive history of that important glass company. Jane’s extensive knowledge of American glass is reflected in the many books she wrote during her long career—books on such subjects as American and European pressed glass, T. G. Hawkes and his competitors in the American cut glass industry, cut and engraved glass made in Corning, and White House glassware. Her writings were handled by various editors and publishers, but they were all important works, and I referred to them often in performing my own editorial duties.”

Jane giving a tour of the Mt. Washington and Pairpoint exhibition to Museum members in 2011.

Mary Cheek Mills, former education programs manager, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“The impact Jane had on my career is immeasurable. I first met her in 1994 while studying glass in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. Understanding a graduate student’s financial woes, she invited me to stay at her home during my research trips and the Corning seminars. She became my mentor and we quickly established a close friendship. We later became colleagues at the Museum, where I managed the education programs from 2005-2013. Through the years we shared a passion for early American glass; she loved the research and I loved to teach. We had other things in common as well—we could both be described as very short, strong-willed Southern women. Jane liked that. As I reflect upon my personal and professional relationship with Jane, one word continues to percolate to the top—generous. By generously sharing her time, scholarship, and expertise she touched many lives and shaped the field of American glass.

“If you knew Jane, you will also remember her dry sense of humor. She loved glass earrings, especially the pair with bacon for one ear and a fried egg for the other. I hope those of you who knew her are smiling now.”

Warren Bunn, collections and exhibitions manager, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“Many people don’t know just how busy museums are behind the scenes, and just assume that staff is sitting around waiting to answer questions and look at what they have. Little do they know that we are often scrambling behind the curtain to get everything done. I was always amazed that as busy as Jane was, she would always take the time to meet with the “drop-in” visitors and look at what “treasure” they had brought in. Even if it was not something the Museum was interested in, she would give them as much information as she could, and they always seemed to walk always pleased that she had taken the time for them. She always had such a great connection to the many American glass collectors, dealers, and scholars, and I know will be sorely missed in that world.”

Gail Bardhan, former research librarian, The Rakow Library:

“When I met Jane in January 1977, she had just begun her whirlwind pattern of researching and writing books and catalogs, as well as curating exhibitions, but the earliest entry in her publication list dates to 1970. Her tales of traveling for work resulted in many lunchtime stories. Her friends will recall her trips to the White House, her meeting Barbara Bush and visits to Russia, Japan, India, and Turkey as part of the highlights of her career. A photo of Jane speaking with Mrs. Bush was proudly displayed in Jane’s office. As a library colleague said to me, Jane’s legacy is in our stacks. I was very thankful many times for her books and articles, especially those on cut and engraved glass (especially that made by local Corning firms such as Hawkes and Carder Steuben).”

Jane with Barbara Bush at the White House
Jane (left) with Barbara Bush at the White House in 1989.

Alexandra Ruggiero, curator of modern glass, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“When I arrived on staff in 2012, I had the honor and the exciting opportunity to work with Jane to transfer information on the Museum’s American glass collection into our collection’s database. It can be intimidating to meet someone whose work you’ve read so much and whose scholarship you admire, but Jane was welcoming to me and generous with her knowledge. We bonded over growing up in warmer weather, and I’ll always remember her pulling me aside that first winter to warn me I wouldn’t see daffodils in full bloom until much later than I’d expect! While she will be missed, she will most certainly not be forgotten. I’m grateful to continue to learn from Jane through her remarkable legacy of scholarship and to fondly remember her whenever I see those first daffodils blooming on the Museum’s campus.”

Tom Dimitroff, fellow, The Corning Museum of Glass

“Jane was one of those remarkable and special people that you will remember all your life. She spent much of her life at The Corning Museum of Glass, and during that time, her contributions to the Museum were many and important. Jane was highly respected by collectors and scholars in American Glass. One of Jane’s qualities in her museum work was one that I admired. As a public-school teacher, I had been taught, and I still believe, that communities are full of both people and things that can be outstanding resources for learning. Museums are a good example of this. Jane also believed that the community had many resources that could be used by museums. I was a fortunate benefactor of this belief of Jane’s. I got to help Jane and other curators in projects relating to Steuben Glass. For example, Jane asked that I help her set up the Carder Steuben Glass Gallery.

“I was asked to make my comments short. I think that is very appropriate for Jane.”

Stephen Koob, chief conservator emeritus, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“I worked with Jane for almost 20 years at The Corning Museum of Glass and there are many things that I remember, from events to acquisitions, challenges, and mysteries. But one trait of hers stands out to me, and that was her enthusiasm. She was selective in what she got excited about, but when it happened it was exciting and contagious.

“In 2000, Jane acquired two “automatic” fountains for the Museum, one American and one English. They are similar to an hourglass design, where water (instead of sand) pours from the top to the bottom, this creates enough vacuum pressure for water to spurt out at the top of the fountain and into a bowl where it drains back down. Both fountains needed cleaning and conservation attention, so they were brought to the Conservation Lab. I asked, “How do they work?” Jane said, “That’s for you to find out, but I think I can help.” She came back the next day with some schematic drawings that she found in the Library, and then I felt confident that I could disassemble and re-assemble them. Once repaired and cleaned, I filled one with water, tested it, and immediately went to Jane’s office. I said, “Jane, come see the fountains!” She jumped up and said, “Did you get them to work?” I said, “Come see…” She really was excited and came to the Lab and I explained what I had done and showed her how they worked. She said, “We must get photographs of them!” We spent a long time admiring the new photography and both commented on how exciting it would have been to see them at a dinner table for guests and hosts alike. For me, this is a great example of Jane’s love and enthusiasm for glass, and the work that she did is a lasting memory.”

Tina Oldknow, former senior curator of modern and contemporary glass, The Corning Museum of Glass:

I worked with Jane in the Curatorial department at the Museum for 13 years. She was a supportive colleague and I respected her for her accomplishments. In the field of American historical glass, Jane was a force, a star, and a success. Yet she was always accessible and encouraging to anyone who wanted to learn. I remember being awed by her ability to process the dozens and dozens of photos of family glass plates and bowls and everything else that people sent her to identify. She forged a career for herself when there were many fewer opportunities for women. Over the course of her long and impactful years at Corning, Jane wrote many useful books, lectured widely, and filled her galleries with great objects. She contributed much and she lived a good life. She had a loving family. She really couldn’t have asked for more.”

Violet Wilson, former senior administrative assistant, The Corning Museum of Glass:

“Jane loved working for The Corning Museum of Glass. She loved research and curating exhibitions. And she will always be remembered for her dedication to the glass field. Jane took time out of her day to interact with our Museum visitors regarding questions about their glass objects. She loved to travel, and I always enjoyed hearing her tell about her travel adventures. I am glad I got to visit Jane a few times after she moved to State College. She will be deeply missed.”

James Asselstine, president of the Fellows, The Corning Museum of Glass

“Jane was a consummate researcher and scholar of the history of the American glass industry. Her work to preserve and document the history of the industry, and especially the companies that made Corning the “Crystal City,” promoted a broader understanding of this American art form, and inspired countless researchers, collectors, and dealers to pursue their own interests in the field. Jane was also a prolific writer and an engaging and entertaining speaker. Her many published books and articles and her frequent talks continue to be foundational resources for scholars who are interested in studying the American glass industry. As head of the Curatorial department and curator of American glass at The Corning Museum of Glass, Jane was responsible for many significant additions to CMoG’s American glass collection, and for numerous scholarly special exhibitions. Jane was also an active member of the Corning Fellows, providing valuable insights, advice, and encouragement to the Fellows. She will be remembered for her enduring scholarship and dedication to this remarkable American art form, for her friendship, wise counsel and advice, and for the connections that she made for so many of us.”

Jane Shadel Spillman, 1942-2021

Our gratitude is with Jane, and our thoughts are with her family.

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