The Steel City is one of the country’s best-kept secrets, and several Pittsburgh museums should be on any traveler’s radar. I have a lot of great info to share this month on the Steel City, starting with a look at three of the most interesting Pittsburgh museums – the Andy Warhol Museum, the Heinz History Center, and the Fort Pitt Museum.
Best Pittsburgh Museums: The Warhol
The Andy Warhol Museum is one of my favorite museums anywhere. It’s one of the largest single-artist museums in the world, with more than 8,000 works from the pop artist’s career, including photos, paintings, sculpture, films and more.
One of the highlights is the “pillow room,” an interactive exhibit in which silver helium-filled balloons float around the room, driven by wind fans and gravity. You can walk into the room and hit the balloons around, or just stand still as they float past your face. Congratulations, you are now part of an Andy Warhol piece!
There’s an exhibit dedicated to Warhol’s magazine Interview, which is still going strong these days. The artist’s famous giant Brillo boxes are on display. And there are always guest works, like a current exhibit by comic book artist Alex Ross. But mostly, it’s all Warhol, all the time.
If you want to meet celebrities in Pittsburgh, the Warhol is one of the few spots to do it. A lot of bands and other artsy folks stop by on their way through town. I met John Waters in an elevator once. Patti Smith did an art showing there.
On my last visit, I bumped into punk icon Henry Rollins, who was doing an autograph signing later that day. I tried to make small talk with him, but he wasn’t having any of it. Which only made me respect him more.
By the time Henry’s autograph signing rolled around, the line of people waiting to meet him extended back to the front entrance, alongside Warhol’s famous yellow and pink cows.
The Warhol also hosts some of the coolest indie rock concerts in town. Past performers have included St. Vincent, Vampire Weekend, Blonde Redhead, Ted Leo and Ra Ra Riot. I saw John Vanderslice there once, and for the encore he actually took the show into the lobby. With no microphones or electricity, he and his band played a few songs, surrounded by the famous Warhol paintings that decorate the main lobby. It was a really cool experience.
For fanatical fans not satisfied to merely visit the museum, you can also make a side trip to Andy Warhol’s grave in a suburb outside Pittsburgh.
Another Cool Pittsburgh Museum: The Heinz History Center
An affiliate of the Smithsonian, the Heinz History Center has exhibits about every aspect of the city of Pittsburgh, from its history in the French & Indian War, to its evolution throughout the 20th century, to its important national figures.
Like Mr. Rogers. Who doesn’t love Mr. Rogers?
Pittsburgh’s resurgence as a high-tech medical center is also documented.
The center features interactive exhibits, including some designed for kids. I enjoyed walking through this old trolley car that was about 50 years old.
Portions of the Heinz History Center are dedicated to the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, a must-see for any sports fan. I’ll be writing more about the sports museum in a couple weeks, but rest assured you can find artifacts from all of Pittsburgh’s successful teams here. This statue honors the Franco Harris Immaculate Reception that started the Steelers’ dynasty in the 1970s.
Best Historic Museum: The Fort Pitt Museum
The Fort Pitt Museum is located within Point State Park, which is the triangular piece of land where the three rivers meet – the “confluence.” Since it’s within the park, you cannot drive right up to its front gate. You’ll need to park downtown and take a 10-15 minute stroll over to the site.
Fort Pitt’s strategic location next to the rivers made it important during colonial times. The museum documents the history of the site with artifacts and displays about the site’s history, including a re-creation of a trader’s cabin used by settlers at Fort Pitt to trade with Native Americans. The wooden cabin contained a bed, furs, tools and daily supplies.
The museum features lots of maps and displays showing how the land changed from Native American hands to French to British to American colonists. Most of the artifacts the museum has on display are weapons – muskets, rifles, cannons.
There are couple of vintage documents. One is a British manuscript of notes from a meeting at Fort Pitt. Another is a traders’ log that detailed all the trades made at the fort. The entries were very specific. One read, “Sold Mr. Smith’s 2 armbands for 5 bucks.” Bucks were not dollars, but buck (deer) skins.
Outside the museum itself sits a small building called the Fort Pitt Block House. Built in 1764, it’s the only remaining structure on the site from colonial days. You can’t go in this building, but you can take pictures of the historic landmark.
The Fort Pitt is more intellectual and doesn’t have the flashy exhibits that others have, but it’s still one of the best Pittsburgh museums for folks who love history. Those who are Revolutionary War buffs or who want to learn about the city’s founding may find the place fascinating.
For more history, check out the displays inside the Pittsburgh inclines, which educate visitors on how and why the inclines to Mt. Washington were built.
These are my picks for the coolest and best Pittsburgh museums. Would you visit any of them?