Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Defining Moments,  Transforming Experiences


For children and adults, museums can be life-changing


By R. Jay Gangewere


Self-discovery has been going on for a century at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Tens of thousands have had moments of discovery, including artists such as Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein, and authors Annie Dillard, John Edgar Wideman, and David McCullough.  For some there is one flash of insight, a defining moment, when an artifact, artwork, or exhibit springs open the door to an unexpected world.  For others there is an experience or group of experiences which over time becomes transforming.

Great museums are easy companions for life-long learning, and an escape from the less creative routines of daily life. Pittsburgh painter Robert Bowden laughs today about the way he and his older brother "played hooky from home" by taking the trolley to Oakland, where they could wander happily in the museum galleries. The museums became part of his life. His painting Specific Steam, based on a 1999 Carnegie International installation, recently won the Carnegie Purchase Prize in the exhibition of the Associated Artists' of Pittsburgh, and is now in the permanent collection. 


Bowden's life-long involvement now includes teaching watercolor painting at the museum. His son Paul, a sculptor, now does drawings of insect specimens in the Invertebrate Zoology department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History and another son, Christopher, a doctor, became fascinated with shells at the museum at an early age and developed a life-long interest in building a collection.  This generational involvement underscores the fact that parents often transfer to their children  the values of what museums offer.


Later in life, volunteers often show up at the museums following a turning point in their lives--a job change, retirement, a break-up or a death in the family--knowing that museum experiences add richness to their lives.  Tillie Goodman , born in Oakland, has volunteered for more than 20 years after the death of her husband. She says, "To me the museum is a world of enchantment, and it keeps you young. It lets the child in you stay alive even when you are in your 80s."


Learning to see art


Annie Dillard, the famous Pittsburgh-born author, described in An American Childhood (1987) what looking at art meant to her when she was  a teenager, feeling alienated, and wondering about her life, reality, and the future.


"In 1961, Giacometti's sculpture Man Walking won the International.  I was 16. Everything I knew outside the museum was alien to me, then, and for the next few years until I left home.


"I saw the sculpture: a wiry, thin person, long legs in full stride, thrust his small mute head forward into the empty air….  He was barely there.  He was in spirit and form a dissected nerve.  He looked freshly made by God, visibly pinched by sure fingertips… Man Walking was so skinny his inner life was his outer life; it had nowhere else to go."


For her this bronze sculpture encapsulated  the questions she was facing as a teenager.  And, like thousands of others, Dillard learned to draw at the museum:


"Late in the afternoon, after the other kids were all gone, I liked to draw hours-long pencil studies of the chilly marble sculptures in the great hall of classical sculpture.  I sat on one man's plinth and drew the next man over--until, during the course of one winter, I had worked my way around the great hall.  From these sculptures I learned a great deal about the human leg and not much about the neck, which I could hardly see.  I ate a basement-cafeteria lunch and wandered the fabulous building."


Andy Warhol certainly had transforming experiences when he made the Honor Role for young art students taking museum art classes.   He was deliberately evasive in later years when he had to talk about his family and childhood, but his art teacher, Joseph Fitzpatrick, who taught at the museum, remembered Andy well from the 1940s:


"Every week I had what they called an honor roll, and the people who were on the honor roll stood at easels on the stage and would make a large drawing of the smaller one they had done.  Then they would walk to the microphone, announce themselves…and explain their drawings. Andy was up on that stage in the honor roll many times." 


Coming from a very poor family, and very shy, Warhol must have felt for the first time, as he stood in front of hundreds of other young people, the importance that his art could have.  The museum gave him the first public recognition he ever received as an artist.



Dinosaur moments


For young children the Hall of Dinosaurs can be overwhelming.  A young mother once took her hyperactive four-year old into the museum to see the dinosaurs.  This writer was with them, and outside the building the little boy constantly talked, ran about, and wanted to go inside to see the dinosaurs.  When we entered the hall he rushed ahead, then stopped dead in his tracks.  After a long silence, he said in a small voice, "Will he eat me?" For him, the minute of personal confrontation had come.

Museum guard Ray Rolewski tells a similar story.  He once calmed a little boy frightened by the dinosaurs by showing him how to growl at them.  Scared by the fact that the Tyrannosaurus rex in the Entrance Hall is 20 feet high, while his own toy dinosaurs at home are only a few inches high, the boy didn't want to enter the museum.  Ray is a good "growler" himself, and he showed the boy how to approach the dinosaur safely by growling at it. On a second visit, says Ray, "The boy told 'Mr. Raymond' that he was ready to go past the dinosaur by growling again.  By the third visit, he had real courage." The boy's mother said that her son started to growl when other things frightened him. The moment of confronting the dinosaur had helped him find a way to cope with fear. This little incident was memorable for Ray, who was awarded the museum's "Customer Service STAR," given to frontline staff for exceptional public service. 


John Edgar Wideman, raised in Pittsburgh and the author of Beyond Homewood (1993), was another boy who had a moment of great insight when the museum opened to him a world beyond his normal experience.


"Under the roof of the natural history museum my sense of the past, of time, was elaborated, extended; the past gained an immediacy and relevance that was frighteningly alien, daunting, but also included me.  My imagination was stirred and I was on my way to becoming a citizen in a world larger than Homewood.  I was lucky. …


"I remember returning to the museum with my kids…wanting to run with them from one end of the hall of bones to the other, howling.  I remember being proud. This is the city where I was raised and it has preserved this communal space."


Carnegie Museum of Natural History guards will tell you that the dinosaurs are not the only display that grips the public imagination.  People often ask about The Arab Courier Attacked by Lions--an amazing piece of taxidermy that survives from the Paris Exposition of the 1860s.  One long-time Pittsburgher, Alma Roth, remembers: "my earliest memory …as a small child, was seeing the camel driver attacked by the lion. I never tired of looking at this exhibit…." Such experiences become lifelong influences, for she went on to take her children and then her grandchildren to see the same exhibit, to share what she first felt.


Sometimes natural history scientists and museum staff impress a visitor in unforgettable ways. Cliff Payne remembers playing in Schenley Field as a boy, and finding a what appeared to an enormous, flat tooth. He took it to the museum, asked the guard to help him find someone who could identify what it was, and finally was led to the scientific collection area, where two experts told him he had found a tooth from a mammoth.


"Nobody knew me from a can of paint. I was just a little kid who walked in, and everybody took time out of their day to be nice to me.   I have no idea whatever happened to that tooth, but because everybody was nice to me, I've come to Carnegie Museums for my entire life.  My daughter and I would take the bus and come down to the museum, especially when they had new dinosaur exhibits.  I would always walk back and show her a mammoth and tell her, 'I had a mammoth tooth once.'"



Defining art at The Warhol


At The Andy Warhol Museum, architect Rocky Kernick and his wife like to visit with their children to discuss art. "I love taking my children there,' he says. "They can look at a painted box of Brillo pads and say, 'Dad, that's not art!' And I can talk to them about why I think it's art and what causes it to be art."  For the kids, the act of debating what is or is not art with their parents, while at the museum, has got to shape their point of view.


Kernick studied in Chicago and in London, and he and his wife first felt they had left a larger world of culture behind when they returned to Pittsburgh.  He was skeptical about the idea of dedicating a museum to one person, " But I've since realized that was foolishness on my part, because it's about more than that.  The Warhol is a community.  It's an experience.  Andy Warhol was very tuned into American culture and western culture in general, and he explored a lot of themes that I have started exploring myself in mid-life." Kernick now seeks out avant-garde art at the Warhol to satisfy his own personal sense of artistic insight--this is "something I'm looking for, now that I'm older, in order to remain young." 



Science beats watching TV


A year or two ago on his way to work at Carnegie Science Center, Ron Baillie, director of education at the Science Center, met a man when he stopped for bagels and coffee at Einstein's bagels.  Baillie had on his Science Center identification badge, and the man said that for awhile he had wanted to talk to someone from the Science Center and wanted to tell him a story.  Ballie said, "Sure."


The man said that he and his wife had recently moved to Pittsburgh, and that they were concerned about all the TV the kids (ages six and eight) were watching.  They talked as a family about other things they could all do together, rather than watch TV.  The older child said, "Well, we could go to the Science Center," since he had been to the Science Center with his school.  One Saturday the family went and had a great time--a definitive family experience.


They enjoyed themselves so much they wanted to come more often, and explored becoming Family Members.  But the Family Membership fee was more than they could afford.  They talked about what to do, and the same older child suggested that maybe they could sell their TV and use the money to buy a Family Membership.  And that's what they did.


Now the family comes several times a month, and they especially like the science center staff.  Baillie shook the man's hand, thanked him for sharing that story, and left the restaurant. "I never got his name, but I wish I had," says Baillie. "He made my day!"






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