Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Traveling Shows                                     


From Shanghai  to Amsterdam, exhibitions created at  Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh draw crowds


By Abby Mendelson


The room is dark, but the outsized modules glow in brilliant pastels.  Giant lasers, endoscopes, ultrasound, gamma knife, cryosurgery – all the latest surgical toys, all less invasive than traditional scalpels -- are figured in far-larger-than-life plastic displays.  Over here, a giant retina is leaking blood – but never fear!  A tow-headed eight-year-old in cargo pants uses his outsized, burping laser to gun down those pesky spots.


Clearly, this is science writ large and simple, but the exhibit is not for children only.  Just as the kid finishes, an older gentleman muscles over, then does his best Clint Eastwood, shooting from the hip, blasting the bad blood vessels out of the target eye.  “This,” he chuckles in the dark, “is irresistible.”


And so it is, and not only where it all originated on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.  Carnegie Science Center’s Zap! Surgery Beyond the Cutting Edge, which premiered in Pittsburgh in 2001, is now booked in four other cities, and the Center is negotiating for more, including several cities in Canada.  Zap! is but one of many shows, specimens, and special events from all four Carnegie Museums that  travel far and wide, on these shores and overseas, bringing fame, fees, and fertile ideas to Carnegie Museums – and to Pittsburgh.


From Carnegie Museums-created star shows to select specimens to scintillating silk screens, “traveling exhibits serve as wonderful ambassadors to the world,” comments president Ellsworth Brown, “allowing the four museums to integrate with distant communities in a positive way.” Ellsworth points out that  sending out shows isn't something new for Carnegie Museums.  Andrew Carnegie himself shared his early dinosaur findings, sending casts of Diplodocus carnegii to the British Museum and other great institutions.  To this day, Dippy remains one of the most viewed dinosaurs in the world.  And it has Carnegie’s name on it.


While Dippy remains the Carnegie Museums' touchstone, the recent exports of The Andy Warhol Museum may have reached more people, and reached them more dramatically. Andy Warhol and The Prints of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), are among the important exhibitions that have traveled domestically and internationally between 1996 and 2001.  Exhibitions from The Warhol have been seen at no less than 86 venues, reached more than three million people, and netted $700,000 in fees for The Warhol.  With help from the U.S. Department of State, The Warhol material crisscrossed Eastern and Southern Europe, Riga to Moscow, Budapest to Zagreb.


“We wanted to share as much with the world as we could,” says The Warhol director Thomas Sokolowski.  “Warhol just bespeaks America, modernity, even commercialism that many countries would like to have.  That may be why his work has been received with such excitement.  An opening of one of our shows in Mexico City, for example, drew 5,000 people – they’ve never had that kind of opening there.  In Istanbul, the Warhol show was the biggest cultural project of the last 10 years.


“Perhaps more important,” Sokolowski adds, “is that in some places Carnegie Museums creates a lasting legacy -- not so much from presenting a Warhol show, but from teaching modern museum practices.  We passed on 100 pairs of muslin gloves, special tools, the necessity of climate control for art preservation.  These were wonderful gifts –Carnegie Museums sharing practices all over the world.”


Perhaps more than practices, museums share science, often in the form of innumerable specimens shipped overseas for scientific research.  At the Natural History Museum, educational loans are de rigueur, from such programs as Museum on the Move and Science on Stage to the museum’s discovery of the world’s first bipedal animal, which went to Chicago’s Dinofest in the year 2000.  As mineral curator Mark Wilson says, Natural History Museum materials are exhibited and studied all over world – from thousands of the museum’s 15 million insects to Count Noble, a display of a legendary Llewellin setter on loan to the National Bird Dog Museum in Grand Junction, Tennessee.  “No matter the size,” Wilson says, “being a lending institution gives the Natural History Museum great credibility and prestige.”


Specific to minerals, Wilson adds that even though they are quite fragile and extremely valuable, the museum nevertheless sends them because “we want to promote the knowledge of mineralogy and the importance of minerals to our modern industrial society.  The specific benefit for us is that making them available dramatically boosts the reputation of Carnegie Museum of Natural History generally, and Hillman Hall of Gems specifically.  A greater reputation not only means that people come from all over the world to see our exhibits, but also that friends and patrons are far more likely to donate specimens or monies to advance our collections and programs.  Furthermore, with a reputation of having top-quality specimens, and of being growing and dynamic, we get early offers of first-rate, purchasable materials. That helps our acquisition program – and research efforts -- as well.”


As subtle as are the Museum of Natural History’s small, sparkling gems loaned around the world, that’s how bold and brassy are the headline-grabbing Museum of Art’s traveling shows.  Designed to attract big crowds, and capture the hearts and minds of many continents, three recent shows are indicative of the quality – and reach – of the Museum of Art.


Aluminum by Design: Jewelry to Jets, the world’s first major museum exhibition to explore aluminum’s impact on design, went to New York, Montreal, and London. Tracing the smooth, shining stuff from its first use to a current standard of daily life, Aluminum by Design explored how aluminum inspired furniture, jewelry, architecture, fashion, and consumer and industrial products.  Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900, Art & Science, Technology & Society was another international success.  Created with Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, the exhibition brought together more than 300 works, William Blake to James Whistler, William Turner to Winslow Homer, Claude Monet to Vincent Van Gogh; Isaac Newton to Joseph Priestly, Thomas Edison to George Westinghouse.


Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Photographs, which runs through February 10, will then travel to New York and other American cities.


Why create such exhibits, then send them on the road?  “Exposure,” offers Sarah Nichols, Carnegie Museum of Art chief curator, curator of decorative arts, and organizer of Aluminum by Design.  “Traveling exhibitions get our name out there.  There are other reasons, too,” she adds.  “With Light!, for example, we paired up with the Van Gogh Museum, which gave us leverage to borrow artworks that we otherwise would not have received.


“In addition,” Nichols says, “the reviews of Aluminum, for example, have been excellent.  And because it’s still traveling, those good reviews are continuing.  So traveling a show keeps it alive as an international story.  I keep getting e-mail from people in Italy, Scandinavia, and Germany, saying, ‘can we have the show?  We’d love it!’  That’s nice – and very good for us.”


The world map on the wall is covered in red and green dots that indicate where shows created by Buhl Planetarium at the Science Center have played.  You can connect the dots from Spain to Shanghai, Capetown to the Carolinas, Melbourne to Madrid.  Translated into 14 languages, each sky show is carefully adapted for individual theaters.  To date, the Buhl Planetarium has distributed nearly 400 shows to 18 foreign countries, including the extraordinarily successful The Sky Above Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.


Planetarium shows, along with large shows as Zap! and Robotics (which ends its seven year tour in 2005), showcase not only the Science Center’s abilities to create high-tech, interactive exhibits, but also highlight Pittsburgh’s accomplishments in such advanced fields as medicine and robotics.  Both kinds of shows, says Planetarium producer Jim Hughes, ”are great victories for our production skills.”  After all, to compete against such world-class institutions as the Smithsonian and the Ontario Science Center for patron attention, gifts, and funding, any Science Center worth the name must make and distribute shows that will defray the multi-million-dollar costs of creating or bringing first-rate shows to town.


Back at Zap! a middle-aged man – standing amidst the children gleefully running amok -- tries to play “Dixie” on the ultrasound’s multi-colored dots.  Failing abysmally, he considers using the endoscope to cut a blood vessel to the stomach.  Figuring that’s too close to home, he decides instead to watch two lads in brush cuts work in a complex maze to try to remove a blockage represented by a black cube.  Clearly, neither the aging gent, nor the buckaroos wrasslin’ with their outsized tongs, care very much about how Zap! will play in San Jose or Charlotte.  They just like what they see, and want more of it, which may just be the point.


As it travels internationally, the fun of Zap!  carries another message: for robotics and  leading edge surgery,  Pittsburgh is the place to be.




Award-winning, Pittsburgh-based writer Abby Mendelson’s latest book is the forthcoming Pittsburgh: An Urban Tapestry.





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