Regarding the Smithsonian Glass Display

Issue No. 213 - January 1991

Editor's Note: The following letters have been sent to us by Charles A. Upton, co-founder of N.C.C., Inc., with the request they be reprinted in the Crystal Ball. They are, therefore, being reprinted, at this time, for your information. The letter/article from Mr. Dale Murschell, referred to by Mr. Upton, was reprinted in the November 1990 issue of the Crystal Ball.

Mr. Roger G. Kennedy
National Museum of American History
Smithsonian Institute
Washington, D.C. 20560

Dear Mr. Kennedy,

My name is Charles Upton. I am a co-founder of the National Cambridge Collectors, Inc. which is a federally tax-exempt, non-profit organization. This organization was founded by and for people interested in the preservation and study of Cambridge (Ohio) Glassware. Cambridge Glass was produced in Cambridge, Ohio from 1901 - 1958 by The Cambridge Glass Company. This company was originally started by the National Glass Company which was a conglomerate of several U.S. glass companies. Soon after getting started the National Glass Company went under and Mr. Arthur Bennett, who was the manager of The Cambridge Glass Company, risked his entire life savings and bought the failing company, here in Cambridge, and made a huge success of his investment.

Cambridge Glass was known throughout the world and was a leader in the manufacture of quality, hand-made glassware, and retained this quality until they were forced out of business, due to the importing of foreign glassware after the end of World War II, and other related factors.

I started collecting Cambridge Glass in 1954 and I am still collecting it. I have a collection of over 1600 pieces of choice pieces of Cambridge Glass, which represents quite a sizeable amount of money and pride. This is the purpose of this letter to you.

Last week I came into the possession of a certain letter, a copy of which I have enclosed. I am sure that you already know of this letter and know the contents of the letter. I read and reread the letter and I must tell you I became very bitter and disgusted. If, and I say, If, this letter has an ounce of truth in it, someone or some group of people involved in the decision making of the Smithsonian Institute should be replaced at once, without ever hearing their reasons for the decisions that have been brought to light in the enclosed letter.

The second paragraph, of the first page of Mr. Murschell's letter could, I admit, be a case of personal feelings towards what he had envisioned the exhibit to be. One would have to see it to make their own assessment of the viewing. I am reading the letter and relying that the things that Mr. Murschell states are true. If they are totally incorrect, then he has been given incorrect data, he is blind, crazy, or he has an ax to grind with someone there, at the museum. Anyway, this is his view of the situation and may well be the view of the thousands upon thousands of the many visitors to the museum. The fact that he says in this letter that there appeared to be no physical evidence of any effort being made to keep the display clean, is in itself a pity and a black mark on American ability and interest in one of the very early, leading industries of the great nation.

The next paragraph is the one that disturbs me the most. To think that the Glass Hall has now been closed completely, is one of the most heart breaking bits of news that I could ever receive, in relation to my natural American Citizenship. Sheila Machlis Alexander, he claims, told him that the renovations had caused the dust in the closed glass cases. This is, in itself, a most disgusting bit of cover-up that I have ever read about. I have a vast collection myself and I too have it all displayed in special built-in showcases in a specially built room, in the basement of my home, and I have remodeled twice and have never had to clean the first piece of glassware because of the remodeling. Why? Because I took a few cheap and simple precautions to prevent the dirt and dust. It is called plastic. There is no excuse for allowing it to get dusty in the first place.

I contend that Ms. Alexander does not know her complete responsibilities that she has been entrusted to, or else she does not have the needed training and ability to do the job she has been given, or she simply does not care and feeds on the prestige of the position. A person may know their antiques and history, yet lack wisdom in the preservation of this history. To think there are 25,000 stored glass items, is most disheartening to me and to a vast number of people. Why is this policy allowed to exist in our treasured Smithsonian Institute? Why are these 25,000 glass items not on permanent display and why is it not maintained in a manner and fashion that it deserves, as a testimonial to the early American Glass Worker? Are we ashamed of our American ancestors?

Mr. Murschell further states that Ms. Alexander stated that there were no future plans for a Glass Hall. It this is true, then that means that the American worker gets the raw end of the deal again, at the hands of politicians, and has lost their place in American History and stands in disgrace and neglect, in the eyes of their National American Museum. Many, many loyal Americans have suffered and given their precious lives for the heritage and preservation and it is all lost because of someone that doesn't care about anything except their own personal gain and prestige. All of their abilities, hard work, interest, artistic talents and love of their skills, have been shoved aside again, for the sake of imports and displays of pottery and other junk. Let those nations display their arts and treasures in their own museum, there in Washington, if they so choose, but not in an American History Museum. Their mere presence is wrong because of the name "National Museum of AMERICAN History."

I now come to the exhibit of foreign ceramics. Either you or Ms. Alexander are responsible for the display of foreign ceramics being maintained in "great condition" while this is not also true, as related to American-made glassware. There is no excuse for this condition to be allowed to exist in our Smithsonian Institute. If it continues to exist, changes will be demanded by the American worker and the American public. A lot of high-up government officials should be uneasy, as to their future employment.

I hate to resort of political pressure to preserve something that should be cherished by anyone that is entrusted with the preservation of their own heritage, and it is a shame that we have to resort to this type of letter writing in the first place.

I now come to the bitter end of this long letter. The National Cambridge Collectors, Inc., as I have stated, was organized as a non-profit organization that is mandated, by law, to follow certain rules in our constitution, and I am the writer of that constitution which, I might add, has not been changed since it's writing in 1973. In our constitution, it states in Article VII - SURRENDER OF CHARTER: Section 1 - "If this organization deems it desirable, by unanimous vote of the active voting membership, to terminate operation of this organization, all assets, records and monies shall be turned over to the Ohio State Historical Society, with the stipulation that such be used only for the study and preservation of Cambridge Glass. In the event the Ohio State Historical Society cannot comply with the above statement, it shall be turned over to Smithsonian Institute to be used at it's discretion."

I must know of he future plans, in writing, of the Smithsonian Institute as a result of the statements of Mr. Murschell. If the NCC should, at sometime in the future, after I am gone from this world, come to this position in their life, I would hope and pray that the terms of this constitution would be carried out. I wrote this article into the constitution with the strong belief that all of this effort would be cherished by our National Museum and be preserved as I believed it would be. If the Smithsonian does not have future plans for the preservation and prominent display of American-made glass, we must change our Constitution immediately.

Our nation-wide membership stands in excess of 1200 members and the large majority are very dedicated persons and can exert a lot of political pressure where it is needed. I hope this will not come to this level. We now have a very nice museum, here in Cambridge, of glass made at The Cambridge Glass Company. We have plans for a larger and better museum in the near future, for the expansion of these displays, and have expended thousands upon thousands of dollars in acquiring all the etching plates, moulds, tools and other related items and materials that we have been able to find. I, for one, am an attentive watchdog of this organization and anyone violating these goals will be dealt with accordingly.

Now, Mr. Kennedy, will you please write to me and tell me that I have nothing to worry about and that American-made glass will be a permanent, equally highlighted exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute and that it will be maintained in a fashion and condition, worthy of the art that it brings forth?

I await your return letter most anxiously.

Best Wishes!
Charles A. Upton

October 17, 1990

Mr. Charles A. Upton
68764 8th St. Rd.
Cambridge, OH 43725

Dear Mr. Upton:

Thank you for your extended, interesting and courteously stated letter of the 5th of October.

We have to start by distinguishing between a nineteenth-century museum, a collection of collections presented each separately in its own "hall," and a twentieth-century history museum, whose function is to provide, in narrative form, illustrated through objects, the major themes of American history. In the former instance, a maritime hall, a hall of musical instrument, a hall of glass, a hall of postage stamps and a hall of all the other hundreds of collections among the national collections might be appropriate. This is not such a museum. This a museum which is in the teaching business in the narrative style. Therefore, we don't assure anyone that there will be a "permanent" hall devoted to the subject matter or the collection in which they're interested. We have approximately 15 million items in our collections and none of them are assured a "permanent" status in our very limited spaces.

We alter our perspectives, as scholars alter their perspectives on our national history. The several hundred scholars who work here do so because they are interested in the teaching of history, not just in the maintenance of objects.

For that reason, I certainly could not tell you that "American-made glass will be a permanent, equally highlighted exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute and that it will be maintained in a fashion and condition worthy of the art that it brings forth." We will be using American-made glass to discourse to the American people about their history, as we will be using locomotives, airplanes, trains, paintings, postage stamps, musical instruments and musical performance. We will not have discrete halls and areas permanently allocated to any set of objects or any set of ideas.

On the other hand, I am profoundly conscious of the difficulties to which you appropriately refer that have to do with the unpleasantness ensuing from the process by which we are rebuilding this structure from the inside out while it remains open to the public. Our colleagues at the Freer Gallery are able to close down their halls for two years while they do precisely the kind of work that is being carried on here, because their visitorship is relatively small. Here, we must replace entirely the heating, air-conditioning and fire prevention of the building while the public is with us, and as a consequence of that, we not only must move things around a great deal, but they will, of necessity, be more dusty than we would like.

It is also true that the ebb and flow of congressional appropriations to catalogue and care for our collections has been so sporadic that is it is impossible for us to sustain what we have in the way in which you and I would like it maintained. It doesn't do any good for you to "put political pressure" on the people operating this museum under these circumstances. We are doing the best we can with very limited resources and very large requirements to serve the public.

I'm a little baffled by your reference to "foreign ceramics." The American people have used ceramics of both domestic and foreign manufacture throughout the history of European American presence on this continent. It is possible that Native Americans were using both Asian and domestically-manufactured ceramics well before the Europeans arrived. Our mission here is, as I've said earlier, to present the history of the American people, making use of the objects which those people have both created and have used. That of necessity means that we present items of both domestic and foreign manufacture.

Mr. Murschell's view of the obligations of a national museum is a little narrow: we frequently assist our colleagues in other institutions by lending parts of the national collections to them. That is true for paintings, drawings and glass pieces. I am delighted to report that those loans on our part have been very helpful to museums all around the country in presenting first-rate exhibitions, frequently from material that would be much less powerfully presented here.

We're delighted to receive letters from people with an interest in the Institution, but, as professionals with specialized skills and training, we are very unlikely to be heavily influenced by "pressure" -- except the pressure to do the best job possible for the American people. Thanks very much for writing.


Roger G. Kennedy