Three Fascinating Pittsburgh Museums: Warhol, Heinz History and Fort Pitt

The Andy Warhol Museum, Heinz History Center, and Fort Pitt Museum are three institutions worth checking out in Pittsburgh

If you have to ask yourself why I’d name Pittsburgh my Featured Travel Destination for November, you’ve been missing out on one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Sure, I’m biased, having grown up there, but I’ve been to all of the lower 48 states and I consider this reinvented high-tech city one of America’s most underrated places.

Actually, that title may no longer be appropriate, because a lot of people are becoming aware of just how awesome Pittsburgh is. In the past two years, both Forbes and The Economist named Pittsburgh “America’s Most Livable City.” And just this week, National Geographic Traveler called Pittsburgh one of its “20 Must-See Places for 2012,” making it one of just two U.S. destinations on the list.

I have a lot of great info to share this month on the Steel City, starting with a look at three of the city’s more interesting museums – the Andy Warhol Museum, the Heinz History Center, and the Fort Pitt Museum.

warhol museum entrance

The Andy Warhol Museum

The Warhol is my favorite museum 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.

warhol first floor

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!

warhol museum pillow room

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.

warhol education

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.

warhol pink yellow 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.

warhol lobby painting

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?

heinz mr rogers exhibit

Pittsburgh’s resurgence as a high-tech medical center is also documented.

heinz history center medical display

The center features interactive exhibits, including some designed for kids. I enjoyed walking through this old trolley car that was about 50 years old.

heinz pittsburgh trolley car

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.

heinz immaculate reception

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 museum

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.

fort pitt traders cabin

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.

fort pitt rifleman

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.

fort pitt block house

The Fort Pitt Museum is more intellectual and doesn’t have the flashy exhibits that others have, so be sure to understand that going in. Those who are Revolutionary War buffs or who are extremely interested in the history of Pittsburgh may find the place fascinating.

Would you visit any of these museums?


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About the Author

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based journalist and blogger who seeks out offbeat attractions and awesome destinations around the world. He has been featured in Travel + Leisure, Connect Magazine, Matador Travel, and the Washington Post.

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  1. Have you been to the Mattress Factory? I live in eastern PA and one of my friends traveled to Pittsburgh just to visit James Turrell’s plays on light.

    I want to travel to Pittsburgh to go to Primanti Brothers for a killer sandwich. You’ve given me a couple more ideas that will help me hide the fact that I’m traveling across the state for food.

  2. Actually, you CAN go inside the blockhouse, if you have a small group or just ask the receptionist really nicely. They have it set up like an old home/trading post, and they will get someone to give you a mini-tour of the place, which is actually kinda cool.

  3. The Pittsburgh Chapter, NSDAR, (under the holding corporation name the Fort Pitt Society) independently owns and operates the Fort Pitt Block House. The group receives no funding from the state. The members of the chapter provide the financial support of the property, and have offered free admission to the public for over 100 years.Hours are seasonal. Call 412-471-1764 for current days and times.

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