Monday February 18, 2013 | by Andrew Page

In Memoriam: David Whitehouse (1941–2013)

FILED UNDER: In Memoriam, Museums, News

A skilled communicator, David Whitehouse frequently shared his enthusiasm for glass in lectures and on formal and impromptu tours of Corning's historic collections. courtesy: the corning museum of glass A skilled communicator, David Whitehouse frequently shared his enthusiasm for glass in lectures and on formal and impromptu tours of Corning’s historic collections. courtesy: the corning museum of glass

The erudite, Cambridge-educated, and widely traveled former executive director of The Corning Museum of Glass, David Whitehouse died yesterday at the age of 71. He came to Corning to serve as the museum’s chief curator in 1984, was named deputy director of collections in 1987, was promoted to deputy director in 1988, became its director in 1992, and was given the joint title of executive director and curator of ancient and Islamic glass in 1999. During his 27-year tenure, he nearly doubled the Museum’s holdings through steady acquisitions. Among his many accomplishments was the 2006 founding of the The Corning Studio, a high-quality glass facility where technique is taught and artists rent time. After 12 years, Whitehouse stepped down from his leadership position at The Corning Museum in May 2011, but continued to research and study with the official title of “senior scholar” until his death on February 17, 2013, from complications related to cancer.

“David was a dedicated leader and a passionate scholar, and he will be sorely missed by his colleagues in Corning and around the world,” said Marie McKee, The Corning Museum’s president in a prepared statement. “David embodied the Museum’s mission to tell the world about glass. That mission drove everything that he did, from the founding of the Museum’s glassmaking school to the numerous publications, educational programs and exhibitions that he oversaw. We are very grateful to David for making The Corning Museum of Glass the world-class institution it is today.”

The late David Whitehouse was known for his dedication to understanding the place of glass in history. The late David Whitehouse was known for his dedication to understanding the place of glass in history.

Whitehouse’s successor as Corning Museum executive director, Karol Wight credits an encounter with him for inspiring her to study ancient glass. “I first met David when I was a graduate intern at the Getty Museum and, through that meeting, became inspired to study ancient glass myself,” says Karol Wight in a prepared statement. “He served as the co-chair of my dissertation committee at UCLA, and we continued to collaborate throughout my career… He was highly regarded by his colleagues and was regularly sought after to collaborate on publications of archaeological material from numerous sites around the Mediterranean and beyond. His lengthy list of publications and articles is a testament to his standing in the glass community.”

During his 27-year tenure at Corning, Whitehouse oversaw the addition of nearly 20,000 new acquisitions to the Museum’s glass collection, and oversaw a major renovation and expansion completed in 2000 that added 218,000-square-feet of public space and a brand-new building for the Rakow Research Library. In his role as curator of ancient and Islamic glass, he published 15 volumes and organized nine exhibitions. His last published book was Glass: A Short History (2012, Smithsonian Books) a contrast from his more academic published works. In 2010, Whitehouse was interviewed by a local radio station about the Corning exhibition he curated entitled “Medieval Glass for Popes, Princes, and Peasants,” in which he shared his love of historic glass, particularly from the Medieval period, some of which he helped to unearth during his early career as an archaeologist in the Middle East and Southern Europe.

“I’ve always had a passion for Medieval history,” he told the interviewer. “My background is as an archaeologist, and a quite a bit of the archaeology I have done getting my hands dirty in the field, was excavating Medieval sites.” The exhibition was composed mostly of drinking glasses, and their loan from institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vatican Museum, and Louvre, spoke to the high regard Whitehouse had earned in the field, both personally and for the institution he led. He was very proud that he was able to borrow every one of the 150 objects on his wish list for the exhibition.

“A lot of the objects were made for eating and drinking,” he told the interviewer when asked to describe the collected works on exhibit. “Specifically for drinking, because, if you could afford it in the Middle Ages, whether you were a peasant, prince or a pope, your preferred material for drinking vessels was glass. You could look at the contents, glass feels good in your hands, it’s light not clunky, and a glass carafe of wine looks very attractive.”

Whitehouse was a frequent visitor to the Corning Studio, where he took special pleasure in watching history come alive in the work of Corning’s resident adviser William Gudenrath, an expert glassblower whose research into The Corning Museum collection includes technical experiments.

“David’s vision was to create a glass studio that was as world-class as the Museum,” said Amy Schwartz, director of education and The Studio in a prepared statement. “He exemplified excellence and civility, and we carried out his vision with these qualities … David empowered us to achieve excellence in our work of creating and programming The Studio. We were overwhelmed with his unflagging support. He had a brilliant vision and gave us everything we needed to make it a reality.”

In his lengthy career, Whitehouse published more than 500 scholarly papers, reviews, monographs, and books—including three volumes of Roman Glass in The Corning Museum of Glass. He was editor of the Corning Museum’s annual Journal of Glass Studies from 1988 to 2011. In 1990, he co-authored with artist and scholar William Gudenrath several groundbreaking articles on the manufacture and ancient repair of the Portland Vase.

Whitehouse curated numerous exhibitions at the Museum, including Reflecting Antiquity: Modern Glass Inspired by Ancient Rome (2008), Botanical Wonders: The Story of the Harvard Glass Flowers (2007), and Glass of the Sultans (2001). In 1987, he co-curated the groundbreaking Glass of the Caesars exhibition with the British Museum in London and the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne, a show that introduced ancient Roman glass to thousands of visitors for the first time.

Prior to joining the Museum, Whitehouse was director of the British Institute of Afghan Studies and The British School at Rome. He also directed numerous archaeological excavations in the United Kingdom, Italy, Iran, Afghanistan, and Libya. Whitehouse is perhaps best known for his work at the site of the ancient city of Siraf in Iran, where between 1966 and 1973, as a Wainwright Fellow at Oxford University, he directed six seasons of excavation, uncovering well-preserved architecture and several million objects.

Whitehouse held a Ph.D. in Archaeology from Cambridge University in England. He was a member of the board of the International Association for the History of Glass, and served as president from 1991 to 1995. He was also a member of the Pontificia academia romana di archeologia, an elected fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Society of Antiquaries of London, and a trustee for the Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning, NY.

Whitehouse is survived by his wife and children. A community gathering to remember David Whitehouse will be held in The Corning Museum of Glass Auditorium on Friday, February 22, 2013, at 5:15 pm. All are welcome.

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