Tarentum's Heritage Museum gets creative with drawing visitors

| Sunday, July 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

After long-awaited plans to replace the windows of the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Heritage Museum were unexpectedly delayed late last month, the few people closely involved in running the space saw an opportunity.

Within a week or so, they had cobbled together a series of presentations involving local history, turning what was expected to be a period of little activity at the Tarentum museum amid renovations into a chance to encourage people to visit.

“We're creative,” says Jamie Stoner, 24, museum curator, who is leading the handful of presentations scheduled this summer.

The presentations are relatively short, lasting no longer than a half-hour. But they are meant to engage, incorporating some of the industrial and military artifacts at the museum as a way to illustrate the history of an area that Stoner and others suggest is somewhat overlooked, particularly by its inhabitants.

“A lot of people don't realize what happened in Pittsburgh and the areas surrounding it,” says Stoner, who started working at the museum as a volunteer about 10 years ago.

She points to the relics in the museum from what was the first aluminum plant in the world, in New Kensington, which was known as “Aluminum City” during World War II.

This week's program, on July 23, will focus on the strength of the sun's rays. The idea was to address questions raised by local visitors about the museum's rationale for replacing its current windows with ultraviolet-protective ones, which would help protect the artifacts. Their installation was postponed amid the discovery of asbestos in caulking around the windows of the former American Legion building.

The presentations are the latest sign that the museum is working to draw more attention to itself. Of particular interest are locals, who are sometimes less likely to visit than folks from out of town.

“If it's in your backyard, you don't necessarily go,” says Helen Strzesieski, a longtime member of the museum who has served on its board for the past 12 years or so.

The building, built in 1931, is particularly notable for its Art Deco architecture.

“The building is a treasure,” Strzesieski says, pointing to the cobalt-blue windows adorning its first floor that depict World War II battles.

It is where Stoner and volunteers have sought to capture the attention of youngsters, arranging activities including scavenger hunts and field trips by the Highlands School District that began this summer.

The increase in activity comes as the nonprofit museum's largest fundraiser, a monthly flea market in Fawn that is run from May to October, is gaining popularity, expanding recently to include about 200 vendors. It has seen an increase in donations.

But the museum has not always encountered good fortune. It was on the verge of closing as a result of limited funding and the unexpected departure of its former manager, says Dolly Mistrik, president of the museum who started working there as a volunteer around that time. She says the museum had gained a reputation for inconsistent hours and a reluctance among board members to embrace new activities and programs.

“This place cannot close,” Mistrik, 67, recalls thinking at the time. “There's too much history in here.”

That is what she and others there are seeking to underscore nowadays, promoting the cultural institution as a place not only for educational activities, but whose treasures embody what once brought prosperity to this valley.

She cites the first floor, describing the artifacts there as a reminder of the industrial might the area had long enjoyed.

“And then you go downstairs,” Mistrik says, which contains everyday artifacts from the early 1900s, “and find out how people really lived.”

Jake Flannick is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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