Visitors to Pittsburgh are always steered toward the well-traversed museums named for the city’s giants: Carnegie, Heinz, Warhol.
However, Pittsburgh might also have one of America’s best collections of weird little museums — monuments to obsessive collection, collation and eccentric erudition.
Once you start looking, they seem to be everywhere. It would be impossible to see all of Pittsburgh’s amazing mini-museums in a day or even a weekend, but any itinerary should start with these:
Photo Antiquities (Deutschtown)
Steal a glimpse into a vanished Pittsburgh that existed before your grandparents were alive: Victorian fashions, the Civil War, aftermaths of disasters, ghostly memento mori, and all the marvels and curiosities of a forgotten time. This tiny North Side museum contains thousands of photos and cameras from the dawn of photography: daguerreotypes etched into silver-coated copper plates, stereopticons and “magic lanterns,” and beautiful early photos painstakingly hand-painted in color.
Trundle Manor (Swissvale)
When Rachel Rech first met the mysterious Anton Raphael Miriello, it wasn’t love at first sight. But when he told her he had “a freezer full of dead squirrels,” and invited her to help him cut up and stuff them — well, that piqued her interest.
The couple is actually the least bizarre inhabitants of Trundle Manor, their Swissvale home. The stuffed squirrels are there, too, perched atop a cabinet full of various toothy animal skulls, dead things in jars, coffins, antique medical devices and other creepy curiosities.
Trundle Manor is like a Gothic fantasia of old-timey circus sideshow oddities, paranormal cryptozoology, horror movie props and humorously morbid taxidermy. Don’t turn your back on the grouse/raccoon/alligator-thing, which appears to control a squirrel with strings like a marionette. Then there’s the singing tumor, brought to Trundle Manor in a Tupperware container by a belly dancer. Now, Olivia’s Tumor sits inside a giant jar, attached to an antique music box, playing music.
Rivers of Steel/Carrie Furnace (Rankin/Swissvale/Braddock)
To truly get the Steel City, it helps to learn a bit about steel. One of the few remaining remnants of the industry in the region the massive Carrie Furnace complex–which rises over Braddock and Rankin like the skeleton of some prehistoric leviathan, its skin a cloak of rust and graffiti.
Rivers of Steel has a little museum in the Bost Building in Homestead, where steelworkers planned their uprising at the nearby Homestead Works. Make sure you call ahead to arrange a tour of Carrie Furnace — probably from someone who worked there. Don’t miss the Carrie Deer, a massive multistory sculpture of a deer skull constructed from scavenged scrap.
Bicycle Heaven (North Side)
When good bikes die, the lucky ones go to Bicycle Heaven. But this afterlife isn’t all pedaling through puddles with baseball cards in your spokes. This is a more serene repose, parked in rows, hanging from the ceiling in an out-of-the-way former factory in Pittsburgh. Owner Craig Morrow has fixed, reclaimed and otherwise resurrected thousands of bikes over the years, from antique wooden 1862 “Boneshakers,” to sleek, space-age fiberglass-encased Bowden Spacelanders, to the bikes you owned (or coveted) as a kid. Bicycle Heaven is a museum, but it’s also a bike shop with mind-boggling amounts of old parts for sale.
Large Scale Systems Museum (New Kensington)
Once, computers were great, hulking behemoths of raw computational power … and they took up a lot of space. In a storefront in New Kensington, there’s an unparalleled collection of supercomputers, mainframes and early desktop computers. Old computers are frequently melted down for the small amounts of gold and other valuable materials contained within — which makes those seen here extremely rare, physical messengers from our not-so-distant digital past.
Bayernhof Museum (O’Hara Township)
On a picturesque hilltop overlooking Sharpsburg, this 19,000-square-foot mansion is part Bavarian kitsch, part 1980s-tech Batcave, part monument to one industrialist’s eccentric sense of humor. It’s also a museum of antique automatic musical instruments and automatons, music boxes and player pianos. Machines range from the massive symphony-replicating Aeolian Orchestrelle, to one-of-a-kind “bird boxes” from the early 1900s — which use slide whistles, organ pipes and other early-20th-century technology to make their tiny taxidermy-preserved birds “sing.”
The Bayernhof feels even bigger on the inside, with a labyrinth of rooms and hidden passageways. Below the ground, there’s a subterranean lair of waterfalls and pools, stalactites and stalagmites. Don’t forget to give your regards to “Zita,” an automaton rescued from Pittsburgh’s long-gone West View Park, who saucily blows you a kiss after telling your fortune.
Up next, cartoons, Clemente, and some hometown zombies…