The science of mounting glass

Imagine you're setting a table with your finest glassware, and finding the best placement for each fragile and meaningful piece. Now imagine that some of this glassware dates back to the 1770s. And now imagine that your tabletop is plastered to a wall, with gravity working against you.

Three women stand beside two gray carts. On the carts, glass objects. They are speaking, looking at the objects. In the background, a display in progress in yellows and blues with tape marking object locations.

If you've been following along, you have a better sense of the challenges faced by Laura McClure, our mount maker in the Office of Exhibits Production, while preparing for and executing the installation of "Science Under Glass." Mount makers create structures that support objects, and they balance aesthetics and safety considerations in determining how to put the treasured artifacts from our collections out on display.

Science Under Glass, which will be open through September 2016 in our first-floor Artifact Walls, features about 100 pieces of glassware from the 1770s to the 1970s, each representing innovations in the field of science.

Clear glass object with two bulbous, spherical chambers and three tube-like sections with openings

From the mount-making perspective, displaying glassware is inherently complicated. Glass is exceptionally fragile. But McClure, an accomplished artist outside of the office, called upon her experience with stained glass to inform her proper handling of the pieces.

"Glass has a very distinct breaking point—literally—but I feel comfortable with it, in knowing what those boundaries are," McClure said.

Posing another challenge is the transparency of the pieces, which complicated the goal of making mounts that are as undetectable as possible—or "letting the object be the star of the show," as McClure said. Consulting with Nigel Briggs, a senior designer in our Design Studio, McClure used brass to make her mounts.


"What we decided to do is just have the mount be the mount, because this is science," McClure said. "It made sense to see how it is being held, because in a lab it would be in a holder."

McClure also looked to the laboratory for guidance on how to handle the objects. Most of these pieces were intended for use in laboratories, and as such have prescribed points of strength—places where scientists would grip the pieces with their hands or place them into holders. It’s the first step in determining how to display the objects safely, McClure said. Talking to conservators about preexisting cracks and breaks in the objects is another.

One woman kneels into a display case, placing glass objects onto a blue platform/display armature. Another woman holds design plans on paper and watches. In background, case is open to show objects and text panels.

McClure likens mount-making to puzzle-solving, as she aims to create safe, practical, and beautiful presentations while taking into consideration the materials used to make the mounts, the buffer between the mount and the objects, where the mount will sit on the object, and how the mount will fit in a case. But it's not one single puzzle to solve.

"Every object has to be looked at individually," McClure said. She considers the volume of the objects on this project to be her greatest challenge. About 100 objects needed to be carefully studied, though they were sometimes called away for conservation and photography. And each of her mechanical mounts needed to be hand-cranked into the display.

"That takes a little bit more time, but the object is more secure," McClure said. In all, McClure spent 100 hours making mounts and two full days installing the mounts and objects into the case. And for her efforts, not a single object was damaged during installation.

Clear glass object with large kidney-shaped chamber and long, pointy tube

With the objects installed and the display open to the public, McClure turned her attention to Art Pottery and Glass, a display directly across from Science Under Glass, where she also worked to present delicate pieces of glass both safely and beautifully.

Leslie Poster is an editor and writer in the Office of Project Management and Editorial Services. She has also blogged about Alexander Graham Bell's non-telephone-related projects. If you're a glass fan, don't miss "Art Pottery and Glass in America, 1880s-1920s," also on display in the Artifact Walls.