Attractions pack big ideas in small museums around Pittsburgh

| Friday, June 7, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Pittsburgh is justifiably proud of its big museums — its Carnegies, Warhols, Fricks and so on.

But let's be honest. Most mid-sized cities have a decent art museum or two, and a nice history museum, natural or otherwise.

So, why not see Pittsburgh differently, and go small?

Pittsburgh has a great collection of unusual small museums. They tend to be organized around a particular, very specific subject.

They can usually be absorbed in hour or two. Best of all, they're conveniently scattered all over the region, giving you a chance to check out many neighborhoods and views. (If you're from out of town, it might help to have GPS or a sympathetic local to show you around).

Photo Antiquities

This tiny North Side museum is like a series of windows into a mysterious earlier world — allowing glimpses of Victorian Pittsburgh, the Civil War, the aftermath of disasters, and the marvels and curiosities of a forgotten time.

There are thousands of photos and cameras from the dawn of photography and after: daguerrotypes etched into silver-coated copper plates, stereopticons and “magic lanterns,” and beautiful early photos painstakingly hand-painted in color.

Photo Antiquities, 531 E. Ohio St., North Side. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays. Admission: $10; $8 for students and senior citizens. Details: 412-231-7881 or

Trundle Manor

When Velda Von Minx (Rachel Rech) first met the mysterious Mr. Arm (Anton Raphael Miriello), it wasn't love at first sight. But when he told her he had “a freezer full of dead squirrels,” and invited her to help him cut up and stuff them — well, that piqued her interest.

They're also possibly the least-bizarre inhabitants of Trundle Manor, the couple's Swissvale home. The stuffed squirrels are there, too, perched atop a cabinet full of various toothy animal skulls, creatures pickled in jars, coffins, antique medical devices and other creepy curiosities.

Trundle Manor is a Gothic fantasia of old-timey circus-sideshow oddities, black-and-white horror-movie props, and humorously morbid taxidermy, restored and repurposed. The sheer number of taxidermied bears blends into the background after awhile, but don't turn your back on the grouse/raccoon/alligator-thing, which appears to control a squirrel with strings like a marionette.

Then there's the singing tumor. It was first brought to Trundle Manor in a Tupperware container by a belly dancer. Now, Olivia's Tumor sits inside a giant jar, attached to an antique-looking music box, built from scratch, playing music.

Trundle Manor, 7724 Juniata St., Swissvale. Tours by appointment only. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. Details: 412-916-5544,

Center for Post-Natural History

Most big cities have a natural-history museum. However, since the world seems to be getting less and less “natural” all the time, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University thought that deserved some attention. So, Richard Pell opened a small storefront museum in Garfield dedicated to any and all organisms that mankind has tinkered with over the millenia.

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) aren't new. Our crops, livestock, even pets have been domesticated and bred for very specific reasons: taste, size, hardiness, cuteness, resistance to blight, and so on. The center doesn't promote a particular agenda, just curiosity and debate.

Exhibits include chicken eggs used to incubate influenza viruses (then to make vaccines), glowing fish made from zebrafish with genes from bioluminescent jellyfish and coral, and Biosteel goats bred to grow super-strong spider silk in their milk, to sea monkeys, which have perhaps the strangest story of all. All have fascinating stories attached, narrated via old-school telephone receivers.

Center for Post-Natural History, 4913 Penn Ave., Garfield. Hours: 12 to 4 p.m. Sundays; 5 to 8 p.m. first Fridays of the month. Admission: Free. Details: 412-223-7698

Bayernhof Museum

This rambling hilltop mansion was built by an eccentric businessman who collected a lot of strange things, especially antique musical instruments and automatons, music boxes and player pianos. This includes the Seeburg Pipe Organ Orchestra, which accompanied silent films, and three “bird boxes” from the early 1900s, which use tiny slide whistles, organ pipes and turn-of-the-century technology to bring tiny, taxidermied birds to life.

The Bayernhof feels bigger on the inside, with a labyrinth of rooms and hidden passageways. Deep below ground, there's a subterranean lair of waterfalls and pools, stalactites and stalagmites. Say hello to “Zita,” a fortune-telling automaton who blows kisses, rescued from the long-demolished West View Park.

Bayernhof Museum, 225 St. Charles Place, O'Hara Township. Open for pre-arranged guided tours only. Admission: $10. Details: 412-782-4231 or


One of only three major museums dedicated to cartoon art in America, the Toonseum packs a lot of fun into a small space. In Downtown's Cultural District, look for the giant cartoon-y busker statues of musicians standing on Liberty Avenue.

Exhibits change often, ranging from comic books to literary-quality graphic novels, early hand-drawn cel animation to the latest computer-generated wizardry, Will Eisner to Charles Schultz, the Japanese anime of “Akira” to classic Saturday-morning cartoons.

The Toonseum is designed as an active space, with workshops by renowned cartoonists, lectures, book signings and learn-to-draw demonstrations for all ages. Curator Joe Wos is also a professional storyteller, who can add color and context to anything. There's also a tiny bookshop that's as well-curated as the gallery.

Toonseum, 945 Liberty Avenue, Downtown. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission: $5; $1 for children ages 6-12. Details: 412-232-0199 or

Rivers of Steel/Carrie Furnace

To understand the Steel City, it helps to know a little bit about steel. Pittsburgh's steel built America, won both World Wars and turned uncounted immigrants into middle-class Americans. Then steel died a slow, agonizing death in the '70s and '80s, receiving no bailouts.

You can get a feel for the steel era through the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, which maintains a little museum in the historic Bost Building in Homestead. The building itself was once the headquarters for striking workers in the Battle of Homestead, the tumultuous 1892 strike that turned the town into a war zone. Now, it's a quiet, contemplative place, industrial clamor replaced by the sound of flickering safety-training films and documentaries.

Rivers of Steel also hosts frequent tours of the mighty, crumbling hulk of Carrie Furnace nearby, now slowly being reclaimed by rust and verdant Pennsylvania foliage.

Rivers of Steel, Bost Building, 623 E. Eighth Ave. Homestead. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Admission: $3; $1 for ages 14 and younger. Tours of Carrie Furnace are $15 to $25. Details: 412-464-4020 or

Mattress Factory

At the Mattress Factory, art isn't something placed on a pedestal, or hanging on the wall. It's something you walk into, something that surrounds you. One of the world's foremost (and only) museums of installation art, it is, indeed, inside an old mattress factory that looms over the historic Mexican War Streets.

Exhibits are created by in-residence artists, who have time to reflect and inhabit the spaces they're working with. Highlights in the permanent collection include the Yayoi Kusama's “Infinity Dots Mirror Room” and James Turrell's hypnotic, reality-distorting explorations of light. New exhibits come and go frequently.

Mattress Factory, 500 Sampsonia Way, North Side. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $15; $10 for students and senior citizens. Details: 412-231-3169 or

Bicycle Heaven

When good bikes die, the lucky ones go to Bicycle Heaven.

This afterlife isn't filled with endless downhill glides, or pedaling through puddles at the head of a pack of 12-year-olds. Instead, these bikes end up parked in rows, hanging from the walls or dangling from the ceiling in an out-of-the-way former factory in Pittsburgh.

Craig Morrow has fixed, reclaimed and otherwise resurrected thousands of bikes over the years. Now, he rules benevolently over a two-wheeled empire, numbering in the thousands: from antique wooden 1862 “Boneshakers,” to sleek, space-age fiberglas-encased Bowden Spacelanders, to the bike you probably rode around town as a kid. The entryway is neat and orderly, with helpful notes and assorted biking memorabilia. Then, you ascend into a series of oddly shaped rooms, packed to the rafters with bikes and their parts.

Bicycle Heaven is also a bike shop, with mind-boggling amounts of old parts for sale.

Bicycle Heaven, R.J. Casey Industrial Park, 1800 Preble Ave., North Side. Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Admission: Free. Details: 412-734-4034 or

Roberto Clemente Museum

The word “hero” gets thrown around a bit carelessly when it comes to athletes, but Roberto Clemente is an exception. Curator/photographer Duane Rieder has amassed a collection of items relating to the pioneering Puerto Rican ballplayer's incredible life, fearless play on the field for the Pirates, and tragic death (in a plane crash while delivering supplies to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua).

The museum is housed in a lovingly restored 19th-century fire station, and includes hundreds of items, including uniforms, bats, balls, photos, awards, all kinds of artifacts, stories and Clemente family mementos. They range from the historically significant – like home plate from the 1971 World Series — to the deeply personal, like a vase Clemente had made for his wife, with her name etched into it.

The Roberto Clemente Museum, 3339 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville. Tours by appointment only. Admission: $20; $10 for children. Details: 412-621-1268 or

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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