- Not Hell, Home
Until the 1980s, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania was headquartered in a small row house, maintained a library, published a quarterly journal, and conducted six evening programs a year. Its collections and limited programming focused largely on Pittsburgh’s colonial roots, the French and Indian War, and the Revolution. It was in the words of even its own members, a “sleepy,” if respectable historical organization, “a founding families clubhouse,” admired by its members perhaps, but little known and irrelevant to the vast majority of western Pennsylvania’s residents. 1
In 1996, the Historical Society opened an 160,000 square foot Pittsburgh Regional History Center in a renovated, ice house in the “Strip” district, a block from the David Lawrence Convention Center, on the edge of Pittsburgh’s downtown. The new building includes four large galleries for temporary exhibitions, a children’s “hands on history” room, a museum shop, and cafe, as well as staff offices and a library and archives. [End Page 130] Exhibitions in the new temporary galleries have focused on Jewish health care, Italian Americans in western Pennsylvania, and music in Pittsburgh. “Points in Time: Building a Life in Western Pennsylvania,” the permanent exhibition of the new museum reviewed here, occupies more space in the new History Center than the entire Historical Society did in its old building and places Eastern European immigrant steel workers and Black migrants from the south at the center of its interpretation of Pittsburgh’s history
The Western Pennsylvania Historical Society’s recent spectacular transformation is a good example of the startling changes in American history museums over the last three decades. Those changes—a revolution really—include the emergence of a whole host of new museums or historical societies. Over 55 percent of the historical museums, and nearly 60 percent of historical sites operating in the United States in 1994 were founded after 1960. Hundreds of older museums such as state historical societies in Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, and Washington and urban societies like the Atlanta and Cincinnati Historical Societies, and the Grand Rapids Public Museum have built new and often vastly larger buildings over the same period. 3
Yet the scale of this revolution among historical museums is evident not just, or even most clearly, in new institutions or new buildings for old ones. It is evident even more in the new and expanded roles of history museums and their rising professional standards. Urban history museums have become major participants in urban renewal schemes, critical definers and boosters of civic identity, and guardians of memory for the many ethnic and other communities within their cities or metropolitan regions. At the same time their staffs have professionalized, become steeped in the most recent relevant scholarly literature and committed themselves to rigorous standards of historical scholarship. Combining the many varied roles museums are now expected to play in their communities and their larger and more diverse staffs with the dramatically expanded possibilities of the history exhibition medium makes the process of creating exhibitions much more complicated than it ever was. It has forced museums like the Society that are preparing exhibitions to confront a wide array of choices as they strive to entertain broad audiences, create meaningful and useful public memories for their communities, recognize the diversity of those communities, and yet still develop historical interpretations of the highest quality. 4
History has become a big business over the last thirty years. Heritage tourism has flourished with surveys showing that over 40 percent of Americans visit an historic site or history museum every year. City [End Page 131] planners and urban chambers of commerce are well aware of this trend and have looked upon urban history museums as potentially important players in...