A whole museum devoted to bright, shiny objects? That’s my kind of place. I was thrilled to visit to the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah, Wisconsin.
The museum, first opened in 1959, houses two world-prominent collections among its 3,500-plus pieces: Antique and contemporary glass paperweights, and Germanic glass drinking vessels. The museum also holds smaller collections of Victorian glass baskets and contemporary art-glass sculpture.
Many of the paperweights were collected by the museum’s first visionary, the late Evangeline Bergstrom. Among them are 19th Century orbs crafted by French makers such as Baccarat, St. Louis and Clichy. You’ll also see works by modern-day artists and small but mighty glass factories.
The three major types of paperweights are millefiori, sulphide and flamework. “Millefiori” is the Italian word for “a thousand flowers.” These paperweights are fashioned from thin glass rods called “canes” that can be coated in multiple colors, then cut to reveal the concentric rings. Sulphide refers to clay or porcelain cameos figures encased in glass. With flamework, artists use a gas torch to soften glass rods. Then they stretch and shape the glass into flowers, leaves, animals and other figures.
The Germanic drinking vessels were mostly compiled by the late Ernst Mahler, an Austrian-born Neenah resident who served as the museum’s first chairman. The collection spans three centuries of glassmaking throughout the northern European region that today encompasses Germany, Austria and Poland. The earliest piece is dated 1573.
The Victorian Era glass baskets, usually exhibited in the spring and summer, are highly ornamental. Depicting the period’s fondness for decorative flourish, these pieces are largely colorful, curvaceous and curlicued.
My favorite part of the museum’s collection is the contemporary glass sculpture. Wisconsin is home to the beginnings of the Studio Art Glass Movement, so it’s only fitting the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass showcases achievements in this art form. Some pieces are realistic and others are abstract, but all are exquisite. The makers are both international and regional artists.
Then it was our turn to create. The museum offers activity classes for adults, children and groups. On this day, we made fused glass suncatchers. We sat around a large white table, where a clear glass tile on a styrofoam platen awaited each of us. In the center of the table were dishes of colored glass pieces: confetti; dots; crushed, sugary glass called frit; and “stringers,” which are like thin toothpicks.
Our assignment was to configure a design on the tile. We could use whatever colors and shapes we wanted, and we glued them into place. Later, the museum artisans would add a hanger and fire the tiles in their kiln. The high heat would melt our designs and fuse them onto the tile.
One member of my group of travel writers made flowers, and another formed the initials of a beloved sports team. I made a freeform pattern to hang in front of my kitchen window. I recently put in a new beige-y, marble-y countertop and beige-y glass backsplash in my kitchen at home, so I chose yellows and golds with purple and burgundy accents.
We wouldn’t see our masterpieces that day–the firing and cooling take too long. Instead, the museum mailed them to us after they were ready. I’m pretty pleased with mine, and it’s a lovely remembrance of the day:
If you adore unique one-of-a-kind shopping like I do, The Museum Shop features works from more than 165 international glass artists. All are displayed as gorgeously as you’d find in, well, a museum.
Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass is located on the western shore of Lake Winnebago, about 40 miles south of Green Bay and 90 miles north of Milwaukee. Admission as of this writing is free, although donations are appreciated.