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Glass Paperweights and Gardens: Ligonier, Pennsylvania’s Art Museum!

Butterfly on a purple flower
Love butterflies and flowers? Read on!

The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art: Wow.

Two of my favorite categories of things to ogle are: 1. Glass works of art, and, 2. Flower gardens. Imagine my glee in learning that a little museum exists one hour south of Pittsburgh, PA which features BOTH beautiful categories — plus butterflies, too! And did I mention it’s free? Read on to see a stunning collection of 169 glass paperweights paired with luscious gardens.

Blue and green glass paperweight
Feast your eyes on these glass paperweights.

A Historic Satellite Museum System

The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art has five branches across southwestern Pennsylvania, and has particular historic significance because its 1976 founding makes it the longest-running satellite museum system in all of America.

Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art
The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, nestled in gardens.

American Art in the Laurel Highlands

The Ligonier, PA satellite of SAMA (the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art) is one of the newer branches, founded in 1997, and sits in a log cabin in the rolling green hills of the Laurel Highlands. I adored this region of Pennsylvania so much last year, that I went right back this summer, and plan to explore even more in the future.

Red and yellow glass paperweight
This glass paperweight looks like it’s still liquid.

Fallingwater Isn’t Far Away

If the name “Laurel Highlands” sounds familiar, it’s because this region is proud home to the world-famous Fallingwater house by Frank Lloyd Wright — a 45-minute drive southwest from Ligonier. Congratulations to Fallingwater for finally being awarded UNESCO World heritage status (along with several of Wright’s other works)!

Metallic glass paperweight
This opalescently metallic g paperweight is awesome.

Glass Paperweights on Display

So, what are these hypnotic crystal orbs that have been dancing down your screen? What is this paperweight collection in the Ligonier, PA museum all about? Where the heck did all ONE HUNDRED SIXTY-NINE of these glass delights come from?

Giant glass paperweight
A glass paperweight like an upside-down jug.

The Walter Carlyle Shaw Paperweight Collection

The story of how these paperweights were gathered is a sweet one. Many years ago, a man named Walter Carlyle Shaw began collecting glass paperweights to give to his daughter, Elizabeth. Over the decades, he tracked down a sprawling array of styles, with some as old as 150 years. He would find them in yard sales, flea markets, and beyond.

Magenta glass paperweight
I want to eat this paperweight like candy.

The Donation that Made the Glass Paperweights Public

In 1992, Elizabeth Shaw Gamble donated this voluminous paperweight collection to the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art. The resulting Shaw Collection became the centerpiece permanent display at the Ligonier SAMA. Such a generous gesture to bring all that beauty to our eyes!

Flower glass paperweight
The petals of the flowers in this glass paperweight are so artfully layered.

A Display Case to Show All Angles

I didn’t realize the brilliance of the paperweight display case at first. Unlike display cases built into the wall, this wooden structure sits in the middle of the room, with windows on multiple sides. This means you can gaze at every paperweight from numerous angles. Let’s examine why that’s important.

Nubbly green glass paperweight
Such a nubbly yet luminous paperweight.

Take Your Time to Look…

At first I walked quickly past the paperweight display case and to the paintings on the wall. (The wall exhibit on that wall changes periodically, so check the SAMA listings for what’s up now.) After a time, however, I began to look more closely at the glass orbs…

Eyeball glass paperweight
This paperweight looks a smidge like an eyeball.

You’ll See Something New Each Minute

The more I stared at the paperweights, the more I saw. From artfully placed bubbles to shapes I never imagined possible in my imagination — let alone glass — my admiration for this exhibit grew and grew.

Glass paperweights
I love how you can see the paintings on the wall through the display case.
Faceted glass paperweight
The middle name of this paperweight is “facet.”

Connected, Yet Crazy Unique

There are common threads of design between various paperweights, but each one is strikingly unique. I wish we’d had more time to study the stories of every orb in that case, because each must have a tale to tell. Who made each and how? Where and when? What was their intent in the design?

Candy colored glass paperweight
This paperweight looks like licorice was sliced and then suspended in glass.
Bubbly green glass paperweight
This seems as if the nubbly green paperweight was turned inside-out!

Do YOU Have Knowledge of Glass Paperweights?

If you, the lovely person reading this, have background information about glass paperweights in general, or any of these shown here, I would LOVE to learn more. Feel free to leave comments to teach us, and to point out details and back-stories! Now that I’ve opened this paperweight door, I’m hungry to know more…

Perfect flower paperweight
A perfect glass flower paperweight.
Glass paperweight bottle
A jellyfish bottle paperweight!

Which is YOUR Favorite Paperweight?

Now that you’ve seen a whole bevy of these balls, which stands out to you as most delectable? If you have knowledge of the paperweight-making process, which stands out as most technically adept? I’m so curious to hear your votes!

Flowers and bubbles in glass paperweights
I love the placement of the bubbles in this paperweight.

If you’re craving more photos of beautiful glass art and architecture across the globe, click that link for a giant roundup I just created for fellow glass lovers. Want more artisan crafts? Peruse these blacksmithing classes at Touchstone Crafts Center nearby!

If you enjoy vast collections of specific items, check out these photos of a museum one hour away in Pittsburgh: Bicycle Heaven, which features over 3,500 vintage bikes!

pointy cone-shaped paperweight
Check out that pointy cone-shaped paperweight…

On to the SAMA Gardens in Ligonier…

Just as the jelly enhances the peanut butter in a PB&J sandwich, the glass paperweight collection inside the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Ligonier enhances the glorious gardens that sit just outside. Intricate glass flowers inside each crystal globe echo the live ones beyond the wall. See how seamlessly this flower photo goes with the pictures above?

Bright pink flower
This bright pink flower looks like those inside the paperweights.

Sculptures in the Garden

Meandering along the stone path that snakes around the grounds of Ligonier’s Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art and winds past flowerbeds, you’ll come upon a set of sculptures that beautifully accent the scene… and also happened to match the exact angle of my dress that I had on that day!! (Even my giant rippling muscles match the angles, eh?)

Orange sculpture matching pose
The sculpture and I were twins!

Flowers in and Out of Glass

Looking at the photo below of the garden beds at SAMA, it strikes me that the oval enclosures of these flowers mirror the ovals of the glass paperweights inside the museum — ovals that also hold flowers! I wonder if that was on the mind of the person who designed this landscape!

If you enjoy the outdoors, drive just a few minutes away to Linn Run State Park for some excellent hiking opportunities for all levels. Nearby Laurel Caverns is also well worth a visit, to experience walking through underground caves that are illuminated by beautiful colored lights.

Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, Ligonier
The winding path through SAMA Ligonier’s gardens.

Butterflies + Paperweights + Flowers = Beauty

I will close with the photo which knocked my socks off, and encompasses the spirit of SAMA in Ligonier. In the moment I snapped this picture, below, the butterfly I’d been stalking all through the gardens spread her wings at last. She settled between a rainbow array of flowers… and in that second, epitomized — right before our eyes — the perfect beauty a glass paperweight can hold.

Butterfly in flowers
THANK YOU, Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art!

Want more museum fun? Check out “21 Cool, Fun Museums in the USA.”


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Heather Pennsylvania

Wednesday 29th of January 2020

Been fascinated with the paperweights! :) especially the glass paper flower paperweight!

Kathryn Dickson

Wednesday 31st of July 2019

Some of these are so gorgeous it's almost a shame to think of them as a paperweight in my house... primarily because I'm a klutz and I'd end up breaking them!

Lillie Marshall

Thursday 1st of August 2019

Hah, good point! It's a funny balance between protection and use for art that's also functional... I think the same thing about decorative quilts.

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