Mantels are fun and easy decorating -- easy to change on a whim, relatively easy to put together. Mine currently has some of my steampunk finds, arranged in what I hope is a artistic clutter.
From right to left, an armillary sphere (I found it on clearance at Target), 3 gauges (eBay) destined for some project, an ornate candlestick picked up at a thriftstore, part of my glassware collection (more details below), a small antique brass surveyors level that used to be my Dad's, 3 more candlesticks with decorative balls on top, some natural treasures (geode, polished shell, and some fossils we've found with a steampunklet) and a framed picture as a backdrop. It all sits on a red velvet valance draped over the mantel.
Here's a closeup of my glassware, which I love for it's pseudo-scientific feel. The hourglass is from CB2, one galileo thermometer and "hand bubblers" were culled from Ben's childhood room, and the larger one I found at a thriftstore.
The last of my glass collection, which doesn't actually sit on the mantel, but rather on the stereo cabinet in the same room. Fun modern and reproduction antique chemistry equipment.
The problem with glass is that it's clear. Yes, that's traditional, but it tends to fade into the background. I've been wondering if some colored lab glass would be a good addition.
If you'd like to do your own mantlescape, it's a great place to start, and you can play with it and change it up all the time. Elements of Style has a good post on mantlescapes to get you started.
You could color the clear glass containers you have with a glass painting kit. Probably cheaper, more fun and Miss J. can join in!
That glass is lovely but would not survive my home!
I've used colored water to display clear glass: just make sure to plug it so it does not spill!
One could also back light the glass with either plain or colored lights.
Finally, putting glass in front of a window is another option.
I remember a science experiment we did in high school that coated the inside of the beaker silver. From what I recall, it was pretty simple, and has the added benefit of being inside the glass so it won't chip. If you could do it with different colors it might look cool and feel more laboratory.
I agree with the suggestion that you take advantage of glass's transparency to fill it with something -- liquids (needs a stopper, but backlights nicely), powders, specimens... beach glass or marbles, for solid-but-translucent?
If you trust that they're clean, use 'em as beverage decanters. "Care for a shot of cough syrup? This stuff's guaranteed to make you cough..."
Love the look - I just went and got a Galileo thermometer for my own mantel. (And some museum wax to hold it firm against cat incursions.)
Something else that looks nice is a Radiometer -- they can be had for as little as $10.
Another possibility for the clear glass containers is to put something colored behind that that might show them off better than the white wall? If there's space behind them, you could stand a print/photo/painting there.
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