We visited the latest Smithsonian Museum, the National Museum of Industrial History. It has been years in the making, and we were so excited to check it out. Located on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel, which is a very appropriate location for a museum that deals with industry.
The building opens with large machinery and a exhibit that focuses on the machinery that was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibit of 1876.
There are helpful volunteers everywhere, and they are more than happy to tell you about the machinery in the building and how it functions. It would be an engineer’s dream. I must admit I was more than a little disappointed about the lack of in-depth exhibition about Bethlehem Steel. The baskets in the photo below held steel workers’ belongings in the plant. There was not a lot of discussion about it other than the work pioneered in the Steel research labs (Homer Labs) and photos of the workers.
There was an interesting showcase about the development of propane gasses, from an industrial by-product to a fuel source. I loved the “hot air balloon” ride which takes viewers virtually over a propane plant as if you are in a hot air balloon.
I also appreciated the mention of the dangers of child labor that was part of the Silk Mill exhibits. The Lehigh Valley was once home to dozens of silk mills, many of which, employed children.
Included was a map of the locations of silk mills throughout the area and audio recording of former employees talking about their jobs in the factories. They had the actual machine from the Laros Mill that was used to manufacture fabrics for the White House. The exhibit also illustrated different parts of the silk weaving process, from bobbins to the finished product.
All in all, it was a fascinating museum. There is room for improvement. I would love to know about the workers’ lives in depth as well as a discussion of the ethnicities of the employees. I would also like to know more about the role of women and children as industrial employees. I think the museum is off to a great start, although it is small, especially by Smithsonian standards.
Since we were at the site of Bethlehem Steel, we spent some time walking among the buildings.
As I remember the Steel throughout my child as an operational plant, it is weirdly eerie to see the building empty. That is not to say the site is unused. Much of the site has ben developed into Steel Stacks, a concert and performance venue. They have everything from the Frank Banko Ale House Cinema, an outside concert event area, to restaurants. The stacks themselves are just stunning. Don’t miss the opportunity to walk on the Hoover-Mason trestle which is an elevated pedestrian walk way above the steel compound. From this vantage point, it is possible to see the remains of a great steel plant in action. The view is fantastic. Make this a must visit for any tour of Bethlehem, PA.
You can read about the botanical gardens on the trestle walkway here.