A Real Glass Menagerie

Nestled in a former mill in a city whose history includes a noble past of glassmaking resides the New Bedford Museum of Glass (NBMOG) at 61 Wamsutta Street. If you haven’t visited this sparkling gem of a museum, you might want to do so very soon as the museum is relocating to the Wamsutta Club on County Street, up the hill one might say, from its current location. Plan your trip within the next two weeks, or, wait until June when its cases will be aglow at the new digs.

In the meantime, you might want to familiarize yourself with glass as art versus its utilitarian aspects. Simply put, glass as a substance is amazing and when crafted into shapes such as animals will capture one’s imagination in unexpected ways.

That was the case when NBMOG Executive Director Kirk Nelson gave a presentation at the Marion Council on Aging on January 28. Hosted by the Friends of the Marion Council on Aging, Nelson’s lecture gave a group of more than 60 attendees an opportunity to learn a bit about the art of glassmaking and its local history.

Nelson said that the owners of the Sandwich Glass Company located just over the canal in Sandwich were great craftsmen, but truly horrendous business people. With whaling well on its way out as a good investment strategy, business leaders were looking for other industries for revenue generation. That was how the Sandwich Glass Company came to be located in New Bedford and quickly renamed the Mount Washington Glass Company.

As the story goes, a group of businessmen purchased the Sandwich operation, a group who already owned a glassmaking factory in South Boston named Mount Washington Glass Company, a tongue in cheek nod to the region’s highest hill. Thus, in the mid-1800s, glassmaking came to New Bedford and flourished. This company would in 1957 become the Pairpoint Company.

“It was a very high-end production,” Nelson said, “… employing as many as 1,200.”

We can surmise that the end of the glassmaking industry in New Bedford went the way of the whale, but art glass continues to inspire artisans around the globe.

Nelson was a name dropper extraordinaire. He spoke of masterpieces created by Lalique, Steuben, and Wedgewood. His presentation included magnificent photography that demonstrated the breadth of techniques and styles of glassmaking and with each image the audience could barely contain their awe. Oh, and let us not forget the island of Murano in Italy, known to this day for its production of breathtaking art glass.

But it was the animals that featured most prominently in Nelson’s talk. He spoke of the method of “flame working” glass into tiny animal forms, once so popular at traveling carnivals. He said the museum had a large collection of flame worked animals, a favorite of children.

There were delicate birds and robust gorillas, muscled panthers, and slithering snakes. There were colors that inspired the mind’s eye to see the beauty of the art while appreciating anew the animals that were depicted. How could one not be concerned about the future of a hippopotamus after looking at the image of one carved from crystal clear glass and realizing the future of both the real and the imaged rest in our hands?

Nelson said that for 3,000 years humans have used glass to capture nature’s beauty, to harness in miniature the power of animals, and to create art from liquefied sand.

To learn more about the New Bedford Museum of Glass, visit www.nbmog.org, or ‘like’ them on Facebook.

By Marilou Newell

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