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Art & Museums

History of Western Pa. in 10 strange objects at the Heinz History Center

| Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, 11:12 a.m.
Joseph Zilberleyt, 4, of Buffalo, plays in a trolley exhibit at the Heinz History Center on Tuesday, April 8, 2015.
Joseph Zilberleyt, 4, of Buffalo, plays in a trolley exhibit at the Heinz History Center on Tuesday, April 8, 2015.

A pair of cleats, a rocking chair, globules of metal: Taken separately, these objects at the Sen. John Heinz History Center might not mean much.

But each has a good story behind it, and collectively, they tell the history of Western Pennsylvania.

"For us, exhibits are really stories told through objects, images and oral histories," said Anne Madarasz, chief historian and cultural director at the museum.

Those taken in to become a part of the museum's collections must answer three questions:

• Does it fit the museum's mission?

• What's the condition like, can the museum preserve it?

• And, does it tell a story?

"We're always collecting," Madarasz said.

Here are 10 unusual objects that are a part of the Heinz History Center's collections:


Apollo 11-Flown Survival Kit| Eric Long/National Air and Space Museum

Apollo 11 Survival Kit

Check out this item from the Smithsonian as part of the "Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission" traveling exhibition from Sept. 29 to Feb. 18. It is one of two rucksacks filled with equipment to help the crew in 1969 that landed on the moon survive up to 48 hours.

"We had no idea what the effect being on the moon was going to be like and where they were going to end up," Madarasz said. "The survival kit gets at the uncertainty of this mission."

The history center is now looking for other items related to Western Pennsylvania's contributions to the Apollo 11 mission.


Dagger used on Henry Clay Frick, circa 1892 | Heinz History Center

Dagger used on Henry Clay Frick

Anarchist Alexander Berkman reportedly used this dagger to strike at Henry Clay Frick's leg after he wounded Frick with a handgun. Berkman's assassination attempt failed, and Frick returned to work within a week.

Berkman served a prison sentence at the Allegheny Penitentiary. The dagger was passed down by Frick's family doctor. A research program with students is planned to dig deeper into its origins, Madarasz said.

"When you get things that have been passed down through families, history is often passed down and sometimes it changes," she said.

The dagger is on display in the "Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation" exhibit.


162-year-old Steamboat Arabia pickles | Heinz History Center

Steamboat pickles

A steamboat built in Western Pennsylvania was loaded for a trip west when it hit a tree snag and sank in the Missouri River outside Kansas City in 1856. More than a century later, artifacts from the Steamboat Arabia were unearthed, including a bottle of perfectly preserved sweet pickles.

"The river had moved," Madarasz said. "The pickles were still in the bottle, and green and crisp."

The bottle is on display inside a temperature-controlled and oxygen-free case in the Grace M. Compton Conservation Lab in the Special Collections Gallery.


Elektro and Sparko Westinghouse robots | Heinz History Center

A dog named Sparko

Think robots in Pittsburgh are a new innovation? Think again, said Madarasz.

"We think of robotics as a relatively recent field of innovation in the region, but here's Westinghouse doing it in 1939," she said.

That year at the World's Fair in New York, the company debuted Elektro, the first voice-activated robot, and his dog Sparko. Elektro, who stood seven feet tall and weighed 250 pounds, could smoke cigarettes and count to 10 on his fingers. An exact replica Elektro and Sparko, along with original advertisements and photos, are on display in "Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation."


Rocking chair owned by the first mayor of Pittsburgh, circa 1815 | Heinz History Center

A mayor's chair

Part of what makes this rocking chair unique is its owner — Major Ebenezer Denny, the first mayor of Pittsburgh from 1816 to 1817. But it is also a rare, survivor artifact from Pittsburgh's early days. Madarasz said that not much has been preserved because flooding and fits and starts to begin a historical society kept things from being collected. People were good about saving documents but not so good at saving things.

"These early pieces of the past are not as common," she said.

The chair, given by Denny's granddaughter, is on display in the Visible Storage exhibit.


Cast-off glass cullet from the furnace at L.E. Smith in Mount Pleasant, Pa. in 1990 | Heinz History Center

Cast-off Cullet

When glass is made, even the cast-off cullet can be beautiful. When the silica, soda ash and lime didn't melt properly, it was considered waste glass. This piece was chipped from the furnace at L.E. Smith in Mount Pleasant, Pa. in 1990. "I love it because it looks like this alien mineral, but it's this real eye-catcher when you talk about how glass is made," Madarasz said.

See the raw, unformed product in the "Glass: Shattering Notions" exhibit.


Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception cleats | Heinz History Center

Immaculate cleats

Decades after what is considered one of the greatest plays in NFL history, the cleats Franco Harris wore to catch the Immaculate Reception were handed over to the museum in a Giant Eagle shopping bag, Madarasz said. Harris was a part of the "champions committee" that helped gather items for the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum that opened in 2004, so he gifted these game-worn shoes from the AFC playoff match on Dec. 23, 1972, when Harris made the famous shoestring grab.

"He said, 'Those have been a bag in the bottom of my closet for years.' Now nobody's allowed to touch them," Madarasz said. "When people give us things it transforms the meaning of them, and the things that they used in their everyday lives become elevated. It makes them realize there's a different kind of value than they ever associated with those things."


Globules of aluminum produced by Charles Martin Hall in his Ohio woodshed | Heinz History Center

Globules that built Alcoa

These small pieces of metal, circa 1886 to 1888, became a big Pittsburgh company. These are some of the original globules of aluminum Charles Martin Hall produced in his Ohio woodshed and brought to Pittsburgh. Eventually, the backing of the Mellon brothers and resources of Westinghouse helped finance and replicate the process, undertaken by Alcoa.

"Originally, aluminum was so expensive to produce, it was more valuable than platinum," Madarasz said. "He comes to Pittsburgh to get the venture capital, basically, to start his company. … Out of this comes a major Pittsburgh company. They don't look like much, but they're really important in terms of the birth of a whole new industry in Western Pennsylvania and around the world."


Pittsburgh streetcar No. 1724 | Heinz History Center

Pittsburgh streetcar No. 1724

A well-known sight to some Pittsburghers — or anyone who has visited the history center — this streetcar, taken out of service in 1988, underwent a four-month renovation when the museum took ownership of it in 1995.

"For people of a certain generation, it really resonates," Madarasz said. "They have a story that's personal."

For younger ones, the novelty of the streetcar is like a trip back in time. It sits on tracks that were once used for trains loading ice from the Strip District building that now is home to the Heinz History Center and was put into place before the windows were installed in the newly renovated space in 1996.


King Friday XIII's Castle from 'Mister Rogers Neighborhood' | Heinz History Center

The iconic castle

Bringing the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to life, King Friday the XIII's castle from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" is made of simple materials. Since it was a part of the set for Fred Rogers' children's television show that got its start at WQED, it wasn't made to last forever, instead meant to be light enough to be moved around during filming.

Madarasz said the history center had been in touch with the Fred Rogers Co. for years about the set pieces before they were able to visit the Oakland studios and add them to the collection.

"For people to get to see them up close, they're always saying, 'Are those real? Are those real?'" Madarasz said.

The Heinz History Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $18 for adults, $15 for senior citizens, $9 for students and children aged 6 to 17. Children 5 and under are free. Retired and active duty members of the military receive $2 off admission.

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