Pittsburgh: Heinz History Center

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When I lived in Cleveland, I used to go down to Pittsburgh about once every other month, usually to see a punk show and eat a burrito and some waffle fries from Mad Mex.  I guess museums weren’t that high on my list of priorities back then, because I’d never heard of the Heinz History Center until my boyfriend was searching for things to do in Pittsburgh last month (my parents were keen to take us there because of this brewery in an old church that they like, but since I’m not that into beer, I didn’t want to go all the way there just for that).  Actually, he wanted to go there specifically to see the Heinz Ketchup gallery, but it was sadly closed for renovation during our visit (it has since reopened).  Fortunately, there was more than enough to see there without it.

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Although the museum is apparently affiliated with the Smithsonian, it is not free like the Smithsonian, charging a hefty $15 for admission.  However, unlike most places I visit, I do think this one was worth the money.  The museum is spread out over six floors, and we arrived less than two hours before closing (largely thanks to my parents’ inexplicable distaste for the turnpike, meaning we drove there via back roads that took twice as long).  I knew there was no way we’d have time to see everything, so I prioritised.  Obviously, that meant skipping the sports exhibits on two of the floors (though being from Cleveland, even my dad, who likes sports, had no interest in learning more about the “Stillers”) and focusing on the actual history.

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We headed straight for the special exhibition on the steamboat Arabia, which sank near Kansas City, Missouri in 1856, en route to the frontier settlements along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and thus fully loaded with all the supplies a pioneer needed to survive out on a claim.  No one died during the sinking (except a mule), so this wasn’t really a “disaster” as such, but the sunken boat was highly sought after by treasure hunters until it was finally recovered in the 1980s.  Thanks to the lack of oxygen, the goods inside were immaculately preserved, and the museum had a fabulous array of them on display.

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Even though I’ve seen the degree of preservation on the Tudor artefacts from the Mary Rose, it was still difficult to believe that these items had been underwater for over a hundred years, especially the bolts of cloth.  Much to my boyfriend’s delight (as I think he was still a little bummed out about the ketchup thing, although I think he was hoping they’d have something about Heinz Baked Beans more so than the ketchup), they had jars of ketchup and pickles that had been fished out of the wreck.  The exhibit had a fair amount of other activities too: you could make a paper steamboat, have a steamboat race, and even pose with a half a horse (see below).  The signage was also excellent, and I was already quite impressed with the Heinz History Center.

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Heading upstairs (which the museum tried to make into a game by calling the steps a “fitness challenge” and providing stamps at each level; works for me!), we moved onto the history of Pittsburgh, starting with Native American settlements (there’s also a living history village set around this time called Meadowcroft that is associated with the museum, though I’ve never been there) and the early frontier, and moving onto the steel industry that the city is famous for.

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This section was huge, and where we spent the bulk of our visit.  There was simply too much here for me to talk about it all without boring you to death, but highlights included Elektro the robot and his dog Sparko (circa 1939, in case you couldn’t tell); Elektro was capable of smoking a cigarette (of course) and uttering a few phrases:

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Wax figures of Andrew Carnegie, and my favourite, Mr Rogers (I still love Mr. Rogers, he always seemed like such a genuinely kind man, and he was sort of cute when he was in his 20s (though I feel weird saying that!)):

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And a video about the Pittsburgh accent (surprisingly, it goes beyond “yinz” and “Stillers,” which are the words we always took the piss out of them for.  I mean, Clevelanders certainly don’t have an accent, right?), and a dinosaur decorated with pictures of famous Pittsburghers (Pittsburghians?):

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Oh, and stuff about Jonas Salk and polio, and George Romero (director of Night of the Living Dead and all the other zombie sequels.  You can also visit the cemetery where the opening of Night was filmed, which I really must do someday… “They’re coming to get you, Bar-ba-ra!”).  This gallery really was all kinds of awesome.

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We finally moved on to the other floors of the museum, one of which I think we only briefly looked at because it seemed like mostly kids stuff and sports memorabilia, and next headed to an exhibit on glass making, which was more interesting than I was anticipating (it didn’t hurt that they had a picture of FDR and Harry Truman using some fancy glassware right at the start).

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Although Corning, New York, was famed for its glass industry (fun fact: I was in Corning with my parents when I was a teenager, but my dad was too cheap to pay the admission price of the glass museum there, so all I saw of it was the gift shop.  This is also why I never saw Monticello), apparently Pittsburgh had its own little glass scene going on too.  I found this section notable not only because of the glass, but because of a portrait of a guy who looked disturbingly like an older version of Chumley from Pawn Stars.

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We were almost out of time by this point, so we quickly ducked into the “special collections” gallery, which appeared to hold all the miscellany the museum didn’t know how to otherwise categorise.  They had a collection for each ethnic group that has a sizable Pittsburgh population, which means that my own Polish and Slovenian heritage was well represented.

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Again, this gallery just had too much stuff in it to name everything, but I obviously loved the objects with presidential connections, like the alleged piece of George Washington’s hair, and a bed Lincoln slept in.

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There was also a great collection of old carnival games, a nice selection of military uniforms, and more random crap than I could count.

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The loudspeakers started announcing that the museum was closed when we were in the middle of this gallery, so I had no choice but to leave the rest of the floors unexplored.  I am, however, very keen to see both the French and Indian War exhibit and the revamped Heinz Gallery, not to mention Fort Pitt (which is also in Pittsburgh, and appears to have some excellent wax figures; you get half price admission if you present your Heinz History Center ticket) the Museum of Post-Natural History, and the slightly creepy sounding Randyland, so I think a return trip to Pittsburgh is definitely in order the next time I’m in America!  This is one of the best history museums I’ve been to in a while; I only wish I had more time there.  4.5/5.

Oh, and you may have noticed that I recently changed the appearance of the blog; I was just getting sick of the old design, and I like how this new one looks a lot cleaner and makes the categories and archives easier to access. I hope everyone else likes it too (or that at least it doesn’t offend the senses), because this is about the best you’re going to get since I can’t afford to go custom!

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As a treat for those of you who hung on til the end, here’s the best picture:  P1130070