Monday, July 20, 2009

Reverse Pioneers-- The Industrial Revolution Exhibit Andy Warhol Might Appreciate

In traveling across the country, as my wife Natalie has agreed to give Pittsburgh another chance and moving from L.A. in what I call a reverse pioneer migration, we stopped by the Great Platte River Road Archway in Kearny, Nebraska—a multi-media experience showing the pioneer experience of the Westward migration. (Around 1848, there was a cry of Gold when Sutter found gold on his land. Ironically, by 1949, in a movement which gave the people their 49er nickname, Sutter had lost his lands to all who had overtaken it in search of gold.) There were speculators, the Mormons who went to Utah to find a religious freedom, the usual array of immigrants who were headed West for a dream of a new life.

The exhibit itself is housed in an archway just of the freeway in Kearny, Nebraska. It is really well-done in terms of multi-media, with headphones they haanded Natalie, our daughter Campbell, my mother-in-law from Kansas City, and myself. We went up an escalator which gave you the sense of getting into a covered wagon. Having spent the past three weeks in an RV with my in-laws (don’t ask—my father-in-law was using our moving back to Pittsburgh as an excuse to see the great American National Parks which some how has lead us up to San Francisco through Salt Lake, Yellowstone, Wyoming, etc…), I wondered how a family—much less an extended family, could possibly make it traveling together day after day. Forget the fact that they had to endure the sweltering heat and bitter cold, had to toss possessions of a lifetime over their wagon, could end up taking a wrong pass which might send them months of course and deplete their limited food supplies. Picture day, after day, after day, of being around the same people. People you may not even like. People you had to make conversation with every day, all day, the same people. Hey look, is that a jack rabbit? Is that a moose? Look kids, look at that scenery? Hey, is that a bear and will it eat us?

Anyway, back to the Great Platte Road, as we went through the various rooms of Western Migration, from the pioneers, the development of the railroad, and the growth of the first trans-continental highway which brought this country together, following along with the audio tour while images flashed in front of us. At each section, were various artifacts of the pioneers who bravely made their way across the country. And ultimately, there were great symbols of the twentieth century from Lincoln Highway signs to a simulated drive-in movie theater which put the whole journey in perspectives.

Of course, seeing this, I couldn’t help think that there should be an exhibit like this in Pittsburgh focusing on the Three Rivers and the Industrial Revolution. I have heard rumors of various groups trying to convert an old steel mill into some version of this. With resources like the Heinz History Center, CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center, and WQED, there are some great resources to draw from.

While making “My Tale of Two Cities”, Marty Warhol, Andy’s nephew, told us of a White House dinner when Andy and the head of US Steel were both invited during the 1960s. Andy suggested that they should turn a steel mill into an amusement park. What must have seen like a crazy idea then, might actually be a wonderful idea to drive yet more tourists to the region and help re-define the new Pittsburgh in the context of its former greatness. For when you see what Pittsburgh contributed to the world last century, it is hard not to speculate on what Pittsburgh’s contributions could be going forward. As with those pioneers of the mid-west, having a Pittsburgh: The Heart of the Industrial Revolution exhibit might remind both visitors and ourselves of what it takes to be great and just what we are capable of.