Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museums: A Wealth of Natural History, Art and Science

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Industrialist Andrew Carnegie left a profound mark on Pittsburgh, the city where he made his fortune in steel. He funded universities, built libraries and established an institution designed to enrich people's lives through museums.

Originally, the Carnegie Museums consisted of a natural history and an art museum. Today, it has grown to include a science center and the largest single-artist museum in North America, The Warhol.

Carnegie Museums

Dinosaurs in Their Time. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History is an active research center with more than 20 million specimens, objects, and artifacts. It’s known for its dinosaur collection, one of the largest collections in the United States.

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But, it isn’t just the sheer number of dinosaurs on display that make this museum so popular with enthusiasts of the Jurassic period. Seventy-five percent of the exhibits are genuine dinosaur bones, not the casts you’ll see displayed in most other museums.

Carnegie Museums

The PaleoLab at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo by Teresa Bitler

You can also watch specialists remove fossils from their surrounding rock, clean them, and repair them through a large glass window into the PaeloLab, located between the dinosaurs and the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems.

Minerals and gems don’t usually impress me, but this collection, the largest in the nation, did. You’ll see more than 1,300 minerals and gems on display from all over the world, including gold from California, copper from Arizona, topaz from Russia and silver from the Czech Republic.

The Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt was one of my favorite parts of the museum. Sure, there were actual mummies on display and even a reproduction of a tomb from a workman’s village, but the 4,000-year-old funerary boat wowed me. Excavated near Cairo, it is one of only six such craft ever discovered.

I also liked ambling past the taxidermy dioramas in the Hall of North American Wildlife and the Hall of African Wildlife. Don’t miss the display of the camel-riding Bedouin, knife in hand, fighting off an attacking lion. It's pretty intense.

Carnegie Museums

Diorama on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Still more taxidermy can be found in the Hall of Birds and more fossils throughout. Watch for the saber-toothed cat and Columbian mammoth (both skeletons found in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles), warthog-like creature Dinohyus, and the massive Irish elk.

Carnegie Museum of Art

Located in the same building as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Art bills itself as the “first museum of contemporary art in the United States” and prides itself on collecting the “Old Masters of tomorrow.”

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Carnegie Museums

Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo Courtesy of Visit Pittsburgh

The collection, which ranges from paintings and sculptures to decorative arts and video, isn’t necessarily what most people today would consider contemporary. When Carnegie opened his museum in 1895, he didn’t have much art. To bolster his collection, he began hosting the Carnegie International, a contemporary art exposition still held every few years. At the exposition, he would purchase pieces he liked.

Art created in 1895, however, isn’t necessarily what we’d consider contemporary today. Think Winslow Homer’s The Wreck, one of Carnegie’s purchases through the exposition.

Carnegie’s collection grew quickly through acquisitions from the exposition and elsewhere. In 1907, he added the Hall of Sculpture and the Hall of Architecture to the museum. Inspired by the Parthenon, the Hall of Sculpture displays reproduction Egyptian, Near Eastern, Greek and Roman sculptures.

Carnegie Museums

Winged creature in the Hall of Architecture. Photo by Teresa Bitler

The Hall of Architecture replicates the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and contains 144 architectural casts and 69 plaster reproductions of sculpture, making it one of the largest plaster cast collections in the world. My favorite pieces were the reproductions of the Florence Baptistery doors and the façade of St.-Gilles-du-Gard.

Carnegie Museums

Plaster cast of the façade of St.-Gilles-du-Gard. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Other must-see exhibits include the work of African American photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, the chair collection in the Bruce Galleries, and the Heinz Center of Architecture.

Since the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Carnegie Museum of Art are in the same building, admission to one gets you into the other. Plan to spend four hours (two hours in each museum, depending on your interests) when you go.

The Andy Warhol Museum

I didn’t know much about Andy Warhol, the flamboyant artist, director and pop culture icon, before I visited the Andy Warhol Museum. To be honest, I probably would have skipped the museum if I had been on my own, but I’m so glad I didn’t.

Carnegie Museums

The Andy Warhol Museum. Photo by Teresa Bitler

The largest single-artist museum in North America, it tells the story of Warhol, starting with his early years and following through the 60s, 70s and 80s. On each floor of the museum, you’ll find a timeline detailing the events of his life during each period.

Carnegie Museums

Cambell's Soup Cans on display. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Works on display range from photographs and videos to commercial art and Warhol's iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans. An entire section of the fifth floor is dedicated to the celebrity portraits of Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and others.

I spent quite a bit of time in the Silver Clouds installation, a room filled with what looked like silver, helium-filled pillows. (There’s something mesmerizing about the way these shiny pillows floated through the space.)

The museum also houses Warhol's serial work Time Capsules, 60 containers Warhol filled with fan letters, telephone messages, dinner invitations and other ephemera documenting his life. You can see some of the contents on display on the third floor.

Carnegie Museums

Silver Clouds installation. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Be sure to check out The Factory, located in the basement. There, you can experiment with Warhol’s art-making techniques such as blotted-line drawing, acetate collage and silkscreen printing. (You can even purchase a t-shirt or tote bag to create your own souvenir.)

Probably the most unique exhibit, though, is one that’s technically not at the museum. Called Figment, it is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week live video feed of Warhol’s gravesite you can access through the museum’s website. Few people actually show up to pay their respects, but it’s oddly addictive.

Carnegie Science Center

I didn’t actually make it to the Carnegie Science Center, the fourth of Carnegie’s museums in Pittsburgh, due to time constraints.

Carnegie Museums

Carnegie Science Center. Photo courtesy of Visit Pittsburgh

But, my hosts from Visit Pittsburgh told me it has exhibits on the body, water and the world’s largest permanent robotics experience, Roboworld. There’s also an indoor ropes challenge course with nets, a rope bridge and zipline. There’s also a miniature railroad and village dating back to 1919 that depicts life in the area from the 1880s to the 1930s. (Look for Fallingwater, Punxsutawney Phil and the famous Pittsburgh incline in the display.)

Buhl Planetarium and the USS Requin, a decommissioned submarine you can tour, are also part of the Carnegie Science Center.

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Carnegie Museums

USS Requin at the Carnegie Science Center. Photo courtesy of Visit Pittsburgh

Even at the three museums I visited, I felt like there was so much more to see, so all four museums will be on my itinerary the next time I visit.

Looking for a place to stay in Pittsburgh? Be sure to check out Teresa Bitler's article about Hotel Monaco Pittsburg here.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary museum entry for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

Written by Teresa Bitler

Teresa Bitler is an award-winning travel writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, American Way, Wine Enthusiast, and AAA publications. She’s also the author of two guidebooks (Great Escapes Arizona and Backroads and Byways of Indian Country) and a contributor to Fodors Arizona & The Grand Canyon. While Teresa would never miss a must-see attraction, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York City, her favorite travel experiences are the unexpected ones: KoolAid with a Hopi medicine man, lobster prepared by a local on a Belizean beach, or a ride in a World War II-era bomber. Teresa writes about her travels at www.teresatravelstheworld.com.

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