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Explore Pittsburgh’s treasure trove of museums

Ava Villalpando looks at two baby penguins at the National Aviary, who were about two months old.
Ava Villalpando looks at two baby penguins at the National Aviary, who were about two months old. TNS

Patrick is too cute, and she knows it as she preens around a circle of chairs with people waiting to pet her. She finds ways to go between their legs to get to the other side.

Her handler moves her back into the circle before he explains that Patrick was several years old before the National Aviary realized through DNA testing that the ill-named African penguin is a girl.

Her name already was known to the Pittsburgh community since she had been in the newspaper and made public appearances, so it stuck, along with the diva personality.

Patrick is part of the Penguin Point exhibit at the National Aviary, one of four Pittsburgh museums my daughter, Ava, and I visited in February. This city is full of things to do with kids. Enough that I might even say I left with a case of city envy.

The National Aviary is full of different birds in a variety of habitats. Walk into the large wetlands exhibit and you’re hanging out with a flock of flamingos as well as some pelicans and spoonbills. You can feel the warmth and dampness of where they live as you listen to them call to one another.

Walk into the grasslands and small birds are everywhere, from the trees to the ground. Finches and sparrows rule this territory, as well as some unwelcome visitors — mice — which were fascinating as well.

The tropical rain forest is where the big birds roam. Throughout the day there were different scheduled feedings and educational sessions at all of these territories.

Penguin Point should have been one of the highlights of our visit, but sadly, it was actually too cold for Patrick and her friends to be outside. They were off exhibit, which was unhappy news, but that made us extra glad to pay the $40-a-person charge for a penguin encounter with Patrick.

A pair of 2-month-old babies were on display in the window of the aviary’s hospital as well. The rest of the colony was tucked away safely into warm crates.

Fun for the kids

Pittsburgh has been blessed with money from steel tycoon and science enthusiast Andrew Carnegie. His Carnegie Museum of Natural History brought 446 crates of dinosaur fossils to Pittsburgh from the Carnegie Quarry at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado.

You can see many of these fossils on display at the museum.

The first floor is full of dinosaurs, including all the favorites: T. rex, triceratops, stegosaurus, diplodocus and pterodactyl. You can see how the fossils were found and learn the difference between a fossil and a bone or shell. There’s even one display that showcases a piece of dinosaur skin.

Check out the paleontology lab and watch scientists clean their latest finds, or pretend to find dinosaurs in a Bone Hunters Quarry.

The second floor is devoted to African and North American wildlife, so you should be warned that these areas are not for kids who are shy about taxidermy. And I mean it’s graphic taxidermy. Lions are ripping apart animals, and there’s blood involved.

We pretended the lions and cheetahs were going to get us, so we had to be really quiet and try not to look them in the eye.

The third floor explores the more human world of ancient Egyptians, American Indians and people living in the Arctic. You can climb through an igloo and watch an Inuit family.

My animal-loving child wasn’t particularly happy to watch them hunting or stringing up furs. But, then again, she wasn’t very happy with those lions, either.

Carnegie also lends his name to the Carnegie Science Center. And where the natural history museum is about looking with your eyes, the science center is about touching, playing and doing.

Families can plan to spend a full day here, and even then won’t be able to do it all. A two-story replica of the International Space Station had us rappelling outside the station to complete a series of tasks that astronauts have to do. You can build airplanes and parachutes to launch.

On the second floor, we were captivated by the miniature railroad display, which showed Pittsburgh from the 1880s to 1930s, complete with steel mills, a carnival, farms and trams up the mountain.

In Roboworld, we controlled Andy the RoboThespian, who did a mean Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. Then we tried to beat a robot at air hockey and basketball, but failed.

On the upper floors, lessons await about new technologies. You can try to do an endoscopic surgical procedure, or learn how the elements affect buildings by trying to build a structure that can withstand an earthquake.

The science center also has a planetarium and an IMAX theater, as well as a submarine you can board and use to go below the surface. A separate building called Highmark SportsWorks is all about the science of sports. Sadly, after a full day of science, we didn’t get to that building.

We couldn’t leave Pittsburgh without hitting the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, a place that helped inspire Austin’s Thinkery.

The museum has some very cool exhibits, like the Attic, where you can try to stand up in the gravity room; and the Garage, which allows you to build magnetic cars, shoot parachutes off a high platform and see how wheels work. There’s also an indoor water play area.

Throughout the museum, interactive art installations are everywhere. We loved the Text Rain, which rained letters that formed words and poetry above our shadows.

What we loved most, however, was the MakeShop. Ava played with circuits for an hour, and then she tried to build a house around her with wood and nuts and bolts. She also sat down and sewed a Little Red Riding Hood figure from scratch.

These weren’t kits. These were real-world tools kids got to use with the help of adult supervisors who encourage creativity while not being overprotective, as some might be when you’re talking about kids and sharp needles.

Parents were encouraged to be creative, too, and we watched one uncle spend two hours on a hand-sewn teddy bear.

There was so much to do at these Pittsburgh museums, the words “I’m bored” never left her mouth.

Adults like it, too

At the Andy Warhol Museum, plan to experience some of Warhol’s art as well as learn about the pop culture icon — born Andrew Warhola in 1928 in Pittsburgh.

It’s one of the few Pittsburgh museums that are better appreciated on an adult level or by older children.

The tour starts in the theater with a short film about Warhol that features interviews with one of his brothers and some famous and not-so-famous people who knew him.

Next, it’s up to the top of the seven-floor building, where you’ll work your way down, following his life in chronological order — viewing his work as a child, in high school and college, and into the 1950s when he created his famous blotted line while doing advertisements for shoes in New York.

Soon you’re in the 1960s, seeing his pop-art style come to life in images of Campbell’s Soup cans, Elvis and Jackie Kennedy. The museum also traces his interest in making films and explores how the Factory, Warhol’s studio, came to be.

A room called “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” features a film that is an auditory and visual explosion which threatens to make both your heart and head pound.

On another floor, a room called “Silver Cloud” is filled with giant, inflated silver balloons that sink and rise around you. You can swat them or move them around in this playful experience.

A fascinating part of the museum is a display of Warhol’s boxes and time capsules. The artist was a collector who boxed up everything, even the most random things.

At the conclusion of the tour, a logical step is to visit the museum’s great gift shop and stop in for a bite at the cafe, which, of course, resembles the Factory.

While the Warhol Museum offers a history of one of Pittsburgh’s famous sons, the Heinz History Center and the adjoining Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum offer a wider scale of history lessons about many more of its sons — and some daughters — and both are worth the time.

At the Heinz History Center, you’ll learn about the forming of Pittsburgh, beginning with its days as a fort during the French and Indian War, and continuing to its evolution into a city of industry.

You can visit different house replicas that show how living in Pittsburgh changed from cabin life to the charming homes of the 1950s.

A big part of the museum is devoted to pitching the innovations that come from this city thanks to industry forefathers such as George Westinghouse and Carnegie.

There’s also news of Jonas Salk, who worked out of the University of Pittsburgh and developed the polio vaccine, and the museum champions a variety of Pittsburgh-created products like the Jeep and the poison control stickers.

In the Heinz exhibit, visitors of all ages will learn how horseradish and ketchup are turned into more than 5,700 products in 200 countries. A highlight here are some entertaining classic commercials.

Other exhibits are tributes to the local glass industry and the makers of wood planes. The Special Collections Gallery features artifacts from Pittsburgh’s immigrants.

We found plenty of lessons about what the Irish, Slovaks, Russians, Italians and Jews brought with them to Pittsburgh, then reviewed the story of Pittsburgh’s role in slavery and the abolition movement.

There’s a lot to see in this museum, but don’t miss the staircases. Between each floor are the SmartSteps, which give you Pittsburgh history by the numbers as you climb each step from the first floor to the sixth floor.

Attached to the center is the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum — offering clips of Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Bradshaw winning the Super Bowl and news about Steelers owner Art Rooney and how helmets evolved.

This museum isn’t just about Pittsburgh’s three professional sports: football, baseball and hockey. It’s also full of exhibits of lesser-known sports like marbles and bocce ball.

It looks at everything from neighborhood clubs to high school teams and African-American leagues — which makes it an interesting destination for a non-sports enthusiast (like me).

Finding Mister Rogers

“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?”

You’ll find yourself singing this song through the many stops along the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood trolley of memories that pop up throughout Pittsburgh.

There are more formal tours of the town where Fred Rogers lived and shot his legendary children’s show, but you can go on your own mini-tour with just two stops.

Hit the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, where, in the MakeShop, one of his famous sweaters is framed in glass on a wall. In the Attic, you’ll also find his comfortable shoes preserved in glass.

In the Garage, find a Mister Rogers-inspired trolley and hear a story. Then head upstairs to find the beloved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood puppets, including King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday, Henrietta Pussycat and Daniel Tiger, and X the Owl.

After that, head to the gift shop to buy kid-pleasing treats like a mug that turns Mr. Rogers’ jacket into his sweater when hot liquid is poured inside.

Meanwhile, in the Heinz History Center, the collection contains sets and props from the show. Although the items aren’t scattered around the center like they are at the children’s museum, you still might have to hunt to find the exhibit.

But here’s a hint: It’s in the Special Collections Gallery on the fourth floor, which feels like a forgotten part of the museum. It contains the living room set with a mannequin of Mister Rogers wearing his familiar red sweater, tennis shoes and khakis.

Kids may find him a little creepy, but the set is really cool, and you can take a selfie with him. Honest. He won’t mind.

The Great Oak Tree, where Henrietta Pussycat and X the Owl live, is here, too, along with King Friday’s castle. And, some smaller items near McFeely’s tricycle include Harriett E. Cow’s desk, the trolley, Henrietta Pussycat’s outfit and King Friday XIII’s photos.

For longtime fans, it is a serious trip down memory lane, one that will make people of a certain age squeal with delight — while those too young to have grown up with Fred Rogers as their conscience may just simply stare in surprise. Let ’em.

If you go

National Aviary: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $14 adults, $13 seniors, $12 children. 700 Arch St., 412-323-7235, www.aviary.org.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday; noon 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Tuesday. $17.95 adults, $14.95 seniors, $11.95 children 3-18, 4400 Forbes Ave., 412-622-3131, www.carnegiemnh.org.

Carnegie Science Center: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday-Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday. $18.50 adults, $11.95 children 3-12, 1 Allegheny Ave., 412-237-3400, www.carnegiesciencecenter.org.

Children's Museum of Pittsburgh: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $14 adults, $13 seniors and children 2-18, 10 Children's Way, 412-322-5058, https://pittsburghkids.org.

Andy Warhol Museum: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday. Closed Monday. $20 adults, $10 students and children 3-18, 117 Sandusky St., 412-237-8300, www.warhol.org.

Heinz History Center and Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. $15 adults, $13 seniors, $6 students and children 6-17, 1212 Smallman St., 412-454-6000, www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

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