Travel: Museum-rich Steel City worth a day trip

Steve Stephens More Content Now

PITTSBURGH — A warm, sunny day might not be the best time to visit a museum, no matter how comprehensive or fascinating the collection.

Ah, but the height of winter offers the perfect opportunity for a day trip to explore the (indoor) cultural institutions of a nearby city, assuming the roads are clear and ole’ Bessie is gassed up and ready to roll.

Pittsburgh has many first-rate venues, including the Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Science Center, the Frick Art and Historical Center and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

There’s no way to visit them all in a day.

On my recent, but too brief, excursion to the Steel City, I devoted the majority of my time to the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, two venerable institutions under one (very expansive) roof adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh. One ticket is good for admission to both.

The museums were founded in the 1890s by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The structures housing the two museums have been expanded over time and the connections are bit labyrinthine. The effect can be cool when you unexpectedly come across a display of African wildlife or ancient Egyptian culture. But be sure to pick up a museum map at the ticket desk to avoid missing an exhibit that you’re interested in seeing.

The natural history museum has always been one of the premiere institutions in the country. Carnegie paleontologists were early pioneers in uncovering dinosaur specimens, and today the museum’s dinosaur collection ranks among the largest in the world.

The “Dinosaurs in Their Time” exhibit is, of course, massive (these are dinosaurs, after all), with several complete skeletal mounts within a three-story display area that allows perusal of the specimens from every angle, including above. And the fascinating PaleoLab allows visitors to see ongoing paleontologic work though a large glass wall into the working lab.

Although the exhibits are top-notch and up-to-date, a few throwback displays remain, delightfully, from the museum’s earliest days. One of the most popular is the blood-curdling “Lion Attacking a Dromedary,” a full-scale diorama featuring a lifelike taxidermy Barbary lion in the midst of an attack upon a camel and a saber-swinging rider dressed in 19th-century North African garb. The diorama, recently restored, was created for the International Exhibition of 1867 in Paris.

Another mesmerizing display is found in the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems, where cases filled with glittering, colorful specimens are reflected into infinity by mirrored walls.

I continued into the art museum, where the beauty is man-made but no less thrilling. The expansive collection includes masterpieces of every age, including beauties such as “The Chariot of Aurora,” a wall-sized bronze art-deco mural first displayed on the French luxury ocean liner Normandie, and “Wheat Fields After the Rain,” a haunting landscape with skies like rolling surf, finished by Vincent van Gogh just days before he took his own life.

The museum’s three-story Grand Staircase is itself a (very large) museum piece constructed as part of a 1907 expansion, with ornate pillars, newel posts and balustrades and a huge mural, “The Crowning of Labor,” covering almost 4,000 square feet of wall space.

Before I left Pittsburgh, I made a point of stopping at the Heinz History Center, which I hadn’t visited before.

The museum was opened at its current site in 1996 in a restored ice-company warehouse near the banks of the Allegheny River.

I arrived two hours before closing, which was probably not enough time, given the size of the collection.

Pittsburgh’s storied history as a sports town is explored in the center’s Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, with displays, videos and mementos such as Satchel Paige’s baseball glove and a pair of skates worn by hockey superstar Mario Lemieux.

The city’s impressive industrial and commercial legacy is on display in “A Tradition of Innovation,” with exhibits about the city’s steel, coal, glass and other businesses that helped power the industrial revolution in America. It’s a proud and worthy tradition, but the exhibit doesn’t shy away from examining some of the horrible conditions faced by many workers.

One display examines the appalling safety record of early coal mines, where hundreds of miners died in dozens of incidents. Pittsburgh later became a center of mine-safety research.

I had used most of my time wandering three floors of exhibits before I realized that there were still two more floors above. I was glad I didn’t miss them entirely.

One unusual — perhaps unique — display, called “Visible Storage,” allows visitors to see more than 1,500 items from the museum’s vast collection that don’t fit in other exhibits. The items are arranged and displayed, simply, by category. But it’s nice to see parts of the collection that would otherwise be locked away in inaccessible storerooms.

And the last exhibit I visited, the “Clash of Empires,” was one of the most interesting in the entire museum. It explores the causes and outcomes of the French and Indian War, a conflict that draws little attention but was crucial in American — and world — history. Some of that war took place on the very ground the museum occupies.

At closing time, I went to my car and found that the roads remained clear and dry for the long drive home.

I was almost sorry: I would have welcomed a good excuse to spend another day in Pittsburgh.

— Steve Stephens can be reached at or on Twitter @SteveStephens.

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