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Andrew Carnegie’s Palace of Culture October 30, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in Travel Dispatches.

At the peak of his earning power, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was deemed the second richest man in America, coming in after J. P. Morgan. Unlike Morgan, Carnegie made philanthropy one of his life goals. According to his famous dictum, a man should spent the first third of his life preparing for the acquisition of wealth, the second third obtaining that wealth, and the final third giving it away. “A man who dies rich dies disgraced,” he pronounced, although he didn’t take his own advice. Carnegie, who had grown up in Scottish poverty before he made his fortune in railroad and steel, was a devotee of education and culture. We have all heard about Carnegie Hall in New York, and many of us also know about the Carnegie libraries that were donated to cities around the country. (Oakland received five of these buildings in 1899, including the downtown building that houses the African American Library.)


In the manner of Victorian grandees, Carnegie wanted to create institutions that would promote High Culture: music, natural science, painting and sculpture … the usual list. The Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History present an unusually pure lineage of descent from its Victorian beginnings. Built in 1895, Carnegie’s original “Palace of Culture” always housed both exhibits on natural history and fine art, and such is still the case. One ticket admits the visitor to both sets of collections, now housed in different wings. But back in the day, what were the “must-have’s” of every museum with aspirations to major standing? – classical statues (check), fine art (check), Egyptian antiquities (check), and DINOSAUR BONES! Remember that the end of the 19th century witnessed a dinosaur craze. Bustled ladies and hatted gentlemen milled in wonder around terrifying skeletons of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in unlikely battle against a ceratosaur.


Carnegie wanted dinosaur bones for his Palace of Culture, and he got them. He financed a whole institute, and in 1899, his paleontologists scored their first big find, an 84-foot sauropod (affectionately dubbed “Dippy”) christened Diplodocus carnegii in honor of its adoptive dad. Dippy was only the first of Pittsburgh’s big dinosaurs. Between 1909 and 1922, 350 tons of dinosaur fossils (mostly discovered in New Mexico) were shipped to the Carnegie Museum. Consequently, Pittsburgh is one of the best places on earth to see dinosaur bones. The Dinosaurs in Their Timeexhibit is highly informative, beautifully mounted, and will take even a jaded adult back to childhood wonder.  Set up with theatrical flair, the dinosaur exhibit places its classic skeletons in painted recreations of the Jurassic world in which they lived.

Jurassic scene

Remember those hokey dioramas of African wildlife in the natural science museums of your youth? They’ve fallen out of fashion, but the Carnegie Museum has maintained them in their pristine glory. I’ve been to Africa many times, and I still got a kick out of checking these out. Behold the Arab Courier Attacked by Lions.

Arab courier attacked by lions

Postmodern theorists would have a field day with such simulacra, but I will spare you the theoretical implications. Except to say that I found it interesting that Hall of Ancient Egypt and the Hall of American Indians were also part of the Museum of Natural History.


Carnegie paid for the Fine Art side of things too. In 1896, Pittsburgh hosted the first of the Carnegie Internationals, the oldest ongoing exhibition of contemporary art in the New World. Consequently, the museum possesses examples of many important artists of the 20th century, including one of Monet’s Water Lilies. Of course the collection can’t compete with major art powerhouses in Paris, Washington, London, and the like, but for a mid-sized city in the Midwest . . . pretty damn good.


There are some fun hangovers from the Victorian legacy. The Grand Staircase houses a turn-of-the-century mural that is touching in its innocent celebration of work and industrial power.

Carnegie Museum Grand Stairway

The Hall of Architecture houses the largest plaster cast collection of Greek and Roman buildings in North America. In our age of mass international travel, the necessity of recreating Classical masterworks of sculpture and architecture for home-bound artists and consumers of culture has gone the way of dodo bird. There’s a stuffed one on display in the Hall of Birds. (I only hope I live long enough to see the day when Tea Partiers will be considered candidates for taxidermy.)



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