I know what you’re thinking. Tacoma? Why stop in Tacoma when Seattle’s less than 35 miles away, and when Tacoma smells kinda funny from I-5, anyway? I thought these very things (and worse) for about 15 years, until I finally pulled off the highway and found myself in the uber-cute downtown Tacoma, muttering apologies under my breath.
Imagine how I felt, then, when I explored Tacoma’s exceptionally cool Museum of Glass. If you guessed “positively penitent,” you’d be right. It’s that awesome.
Many people are likely familiar with the often oversized and usually playful glass sculptures created by Dale Chihuly, but not as many people know that the artist was born and raised in Tacoma. He left the city a long time ago, but he’s brought his considerable influence in the art world back in the form of the city’s Museum of Glass, which he helped found in the early 2000s. The Museum isn’t a Chihuly gallery, although there are some smaller Chihuly pieces in the main part of the museum and an enormous collection of Chihuly pieces on display as part of the nearby Chihuly Bridge of Glass – rather it’s a showcase for glass art by a wide selection of artists, including permanent and temporary exhibits.
Rooms in the Museum of Glass include works of art created by museum staff members and visiting artists, but my favorite gallery – and the favorite of every kid I saw in the museum – was the Kids Design Glass Collection. It’s a concept so simple, and yet so brilliant, you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. Each piece on display in this gallery was designed by a child (age 12 and under) and then realized by the glass sculpting team at the museum. The display includes the child’s original drawing and explanation, and it’s nothing short of amazing to see how closely the finished piece resembles the colored-marker designs. What’s more, each design is rendered twice – once for the gallery and once for the kid to keep.
Perhaps the best part of a visit to the Museum of Glass, however, is a peek into the Hot Shop. There’s always a team of glassblowers at work in the Hot Shop, with or without a visiting artist, and between stadium seating on one side and a balcony overlooking the artists on another it’s impossible to not get a great view. Kids of all ages will be fascinated with the process, at once graceful and perilous, and there’s usually one person explaining what’s going on at all times. If you’ve never seen glass sculpting in person – and even if you have – that’s enough reason to make a beeline for the Museum of Glass next time you’re in the area.
It may be that part of my penance for maligning Tacoma for so many years is to try and convince as many people as possible to get off the highway and visit the Museum of Glass, but even if I didn’t owe the city a thing I still couldn’t recommend this museum more highly. As the museum’s own website says, “Get your glass down here.”
Museum of Glass Visitor Information:
The open hours, admission prices, and driving directions are listed on the museum’s visitor information page, and they offer tips for visiting (such as, no photography in the galleries, but in the Hot Shop it’s fine). There’s a cafe on-site if you get peckish, and there are usually hands-on glassmaking classes going on that even the kids can get involved with.
Photo credits: Dale Chihuly Bridge of Glass by Mahesh Thapa;”Shark Attack” and 8-year-old designer Erica by Russell Johnson; Hot Shop by Ken Emly. All courtesy Museum of Glass.
Jessica Spiegel is a Portland-based freelance writer and social-media consultant, and she’s really glad she finally got off I-5 en route home from Seattle one day.