Once a year, on the weekend closest to my birthday, I get to impose my choice of a day trip on the other five members of the Pict family and they are not allowed to complain or picket. Last year, everyone had to accompany me to Edgar Allan Poe’s Philadelphia home and the year before that we had a thorough wander around Laurel Hill Cemetery. This year, for multiple reasons, my choice was to visit the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn a bit more about the state we now call home and so it proved to be.
We began in a gallery dedicated to Pennsylvania icons. This was a clever way to curate an eclectic array of items from stuffed animals to vintage packaging to ephemera from various industries. I actually had not known that mountain lions had ever roamed in Pennsylvania. 1871 was when the last cougar was killed in Pennsylvania, though the last eastern mountain lion was seen in Maine in 1938. My oldest son, snarky teen that he is, had sarcastically grumped that he was really hoping to see a coal pick so I dragged him to a display about Pennsylvania’s history of coal mining to show him the pick. He was nowhere near as enthusiastic as he had implied he would be. My favourite section of the icons gallery was that dedicated to big name companies based in PA because I love vintage packaging. There were old Heinz bottles, a Tastykake tin, a cardboard Hershey’s barrel that had once held Kisses, Crayola crayon cartons, and Hires root beer bottles. I also saw packaging from companies that I had not known were PA based – Keebler, Peeps, Zippo lighters, slinky, and Planter’s peanuts.
The reason I like vintage packaging is that I like old graphic design and commercial art and typography. For that same reason, I enjoyed the special exhibition dedicated to war advertising. In order to engage the kids in the idea of art as propaganda, we took turns adopting the poses depicted in the posters. That was good fun as was the slogan “Can vegetables, fruit, and the Kaiser too”. Nearby was a set of display cases with military items and a model of the battleship, USS Pennsylvania.
I had read that the museum had not so long ago been very moribund but that it had been given a boost when it stopped being free and started charging (admission is reasonable, though we had free entry) so they could invest in improving their displays to better showcase their exhibits and so they could obtain new items. One of these new purchases was very striking. From a distance, it looked like a beautiful sculpture of dangling sparkles, like an extra long chandelier; close up, however, it was arresting to discover that the sparkles were little gems inside glassine bags and that each of these bags represented an opioid death just from within Pennsylvania and just in 2017. It was staggering and to see this visual representation of all those tragedies.
My husband was looking forward to the Civil War section, since that is one of his nerd categories, but he was disappointed because it was very much focused on the “home front” and the social history aspects of the conflict rather than the military or political history that enthuses him. The kids and I, however, enjoyed it well enough. Our youngest learned that he could have served as a drummer boy and the boys all got to try out stereoscopic viewfinders for the first time. For my part, I was most struck by a display of items commemorating Gettysburg that were more like tourist trinkets than sombre reminders of a terrible, traumatic tragedy. I found it difficult to imagine women in crinolines fanning their faces with fans depicting the battlefield at some society ball. People can be so strange. Mr Pict did, however, enjoy a later section in the Museum featuring Civil War items, including John Burns’ rifle. The centrepiece of this gallery was an absolutely cast painting of the battle of Gettysburg by Peter Frederick Rothermel. Mr Pict got really into it and explained all of the areas of action being portrayed on the canvas. My eyes glazed over and my ears went numb.
There was an aesthetically pleasing section of the museum that had been dressed up to look like a street from times past. It contained things like an old trough with a pump, a general store, various shop windows, and trade workshops. My youngest was actually creeped out by the sound effects in the woodworker’s workshop. I learned something in that section too – summer kitchens. I had no idea summer kitchens used to be a thing, an additional building or annex room built in a shaded space and with thick stone walls so as to keep everything cool and, therefore, safely hygienic and to stop the rest of the house getting warm from the hot activities of cooking in the days before refrigeration and air conditioning. I was aware of kitchen outbuildings only in the context of enslaved people working in them on plantations so it was new information to me that houses in various social strata had once had these. My favourite item in this section, however, was a simple tin advertising sign that read “Pepo Worm Syrup”. I was simply tickled by the name plus I find parasites to be fascinating (probably as an offshoot of my keen interest in pandemics).
A trip up the escalator took us to a section largely dedicated to forms of transport. I do love the shapes of old stagecoaches and conestoga wagons but I am otherwise not that interested in vintage vehicles. Nor are my husband or children so we were able to whip through this section at a brisk pace. The same space also had displays, exhibits, and information about various industries of Pennsylvania such as milling of grain or textiles. Again, industrial history is not my bag so we moved quickly. My husband, however, did spend a bit of time in a section about the Pennsylvania Turnpike just because he has a connection, through his employment, to the turnpike. It was actually a really nicely presented area and probably one that had some recent investment of funds and time. We all had a good laugh when we happened upon a record of the song “Pennsylvania Turnpike, I love you” by Dick Todd and the Appalachian Wildcats and a button that let us listen to the track. It was a hoot.
The top tier of the museum was like stepping through a portal in time to my childhood as it was all of the things I remember loving about museum visits as a kid: anthropology, dinosaurs, taxidermy, and dioramas on different scales. I still get just as enthusiastic about these things as wee Laura did many birthdays ago. The mannequins in the dioramas had that glossy look of mannequins from my late 1970s childhood but the dioramas themselves were well maintained and effective. I liked the miniature dioramas best, however, because I like tiny wee fiddly things. I was big into dinosaurs when I was a wee girl. I was, therefore, definitely transported back to my childhood when it came to the fossils because I was very excited to see the skull of a gigantic fish and an entire mastodon skeleton, both found within Pennsylvania. The dioramas of stuffed critters were also well done as they depicted small ecosystems instead of just being a plain old wolf among painted grass. I learned that bison had once roamed in Pennsylvania but I also learned about how massively taxidermy techniques have improved. An adjacent section was all about the process of preserving, stuffing, and displaying an animal carcass and seeing what the old mountain lion used to look like – stubby muzzled and cartoonish – demonstrated just how much techniques have improved.
Phew! This post is quite long enough but I will conclude it with a postscript. The State Museum is opposite the State Capitol. We had visited the State Capitol in 2015, though we didn’t take a formal tour, so this time we just did a circuit of the exterior.
Then it was in the car and off to the second location for my birthday day trip ….
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