Museum director takes over with eye on expansion

David Kubarek
September 12, 2019

When Jane Cook talks about her career as an engineer at precision glass manufacturer Corning Inc., and then as chief scientist at the Corning Museum of Glass, she mentions the process window: that’s the concept of understanding everything about the process, knowing what causes that process to both succeed and fail.

That could prove useful as Cook guides the Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Museum & Art Gallery through its series of updates and advances. As new museum director, Cook will chart the museum through its process for national accreditation, the digitization of its vast collection and acquisition of new pieces to reflect the expanded interests of the college.

Cook, who takes over for Russell Graham, has big plans for the museum. She praised the museum’s vast collection of more than 18,000 geological specimens, trade tools such as mining lamps, and the Steidle Collection of American Industrial Art, one of the most comprehensive assemblages of American industrial art that connects pre-World War II era fine arts, industry and education.

Jane Cook shows off a few pieces of the museum's vast mining lamps collection.

Jane Cook, the new director of the Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Museum & Art Gallery, shows off a few pieces of the museum's vast mining lamps collection.

IMAGE: David Kubarek

She wants to build on that legacy.

“Historically, this museum has been identified as a rocks and bones museum,” Cook said. “My vision for the museum hinges on this one word (of): I don’t want this to be a museum that is ‘in’ the college; I want this to be the museum ‘of’ the college.”

To expand while being more expansive, she’s reaching out to faculty members, asking them what tools they use to help teach and tell stories about the work they do. She’s also prompting artists to create work that falls in line with the college’s research focuses. And undergraduate and graduate students, through a newly formed EMS museum student group, will help Cook achieve these lofty goals.

But, above all, her goal is to engage people using both art and science.

“Museums are more than learning spaces, they’re social spaces, community spaces,” Cook said. “It’s a social learning experience where everyone can come in, look at the objects, exhibits, space and the context that it’s in and come away with something and talk to each other about it. This forms this seed of community, shared emotion, wonder and curiosity.”

Jane Cook enjoys teaching science through the use of props and artifacts.

Jane Cook, the new director of the Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Museum & Art Gallery, enjoys teaching science through the use of props and artifacts. That love, and her love of art and science, compelled her to shift her career from science to museums.

IMAGE: David Kubarek

Born into art

The merging of art and science isn’t something new to Cook, who earned her undergraduate degree in materials engineering at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and master’s and doctoral degrees in metallurgical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison before joining Corning. With a father who worked as an industrial artist for a defense contractor, you could say she was born into it.

“He would bring home some really cool drawings and paintings that he had done,” Cook said. “He was an artist who worked with scientists and engineers and I’ve become a scientist who works with artists.”

Cook fell in love with chemistry at an early age and a materials science textbook she found at a yard sale as a teen growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley opened her eyes to the chemistry of solid objects. In graduate school, she simulated rocks — the diffusion of ions within molten glass — and lessened the toxicity of environments where materials were created. Her doctoral work focused on improving the float process for forming glass — where glass is shaped perfectly flat as it’s poured over molten metal — steered her to Corning. She worked there for 16 years, creating and refining machinery to produce demanding glasses for electronics, instruments and other applications — amassing 20 patents — before leaving corporate research to work at the Corning Museum of Glass.

Engineer to artist

While creating samples for exotic glass forms, which were too time consuming and expensive to build machines for, Cook turned to the museum’s renowned glass artists. Cook quickly bonded with these artists who possessed an equally intimate understanding of the material, yet used an entirely different approach.

“That introduced me to the incredible skill and control that these people have over this material that I knew intimately from the atoms up,” Cook said. “Their relationship with the material was just as full and rich. We could teach each other why certain things were happening. They could tell me from a process engineering standpoint why they were touching the material in a certain way with certain tools at certain times. I fell in love with that dance and what they were accomplishing with the aesthetic of the material.”

That love of art and storytelling through exhibits was enough to shift careers, which she did for five years before joining Penn State.

Creating exhibits

Cook loves the challenge of creating exhibits that engage people from ages 2 to 92. She said the process window is narrow — everything has to be thought out perfectly — to tell the story. The steps for telling a story with a fixed exhibit can take years, she said. You’re conceptualizing, building, assessing audience response and then readjusting.

When an exhibit achieves that level of perfection, she said, it can be magical.

At Corning, she helped create an “Apollo at 50” themed exhibit that focused on the role glass had in the moon landing. There was plenty to go on: high-end glasses created telescopes that let us see the moon in greater detail than ever before, fueling the space race. From spacesuits to shuttle housings, glass insulation and parts were everywhere. And recent findings from NASA reported meteor collisions had rendered parts of the surface of the moon glass.

The results were out of this world.

Museum guests touched a piece of moon glass — on loan from NASA — as they peered at the moon through the very telescopes that inspired space travel. Other installations showcased glass’ impact on exploration.

Legacy at Penn State

At the University, she hopes to achieve the same.

Her goal is to focus on the storytelling and expanding the museum to tell stories related to the future of the college. And to do that in a way that inspires others.

“I want the museum to be seen around the world as an exemplar of what a small university museum can be,” Cook said. “I want it to be valued and used as a resource for education, for entertainment and for community-building. I want it to be a go-to, a principled and valued part of Penn State and a place that people continue to remember.”

  • Jane Cook enjoys teaching science through the use of props and artifacts.

    Jane Cook, the new director of the Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Museum & Art Gallery, enjoys teaching science through the use of props and artifacts. That love, and her love of art and science, compelled her to shift her career from science to museums.

    IMAGE: David Kubarek
  • Jane Cook shows off a few pieces of the museum's vast mining lamps collection.

    Jane Cook, the new director of the Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Museum & Art Gallery, shows off a few pieces of the museum's vast mining lamps collection.

    IMAGE: David Kubarek
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Last Updated September 12, 2019