'Palace of Culture': An elegant history of the Carnegie museums and library that 'greatly enhances our appreciation'

Book review: 'Palace of Culture: Andrew Carnegie's Museums and Library in Pittsburgh,' Robert J. Gangewere. University of Pittsburgh Press, $35.


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This handsome, meticulously researched and beautifully written book comprises the histories of many separate but linked institutions: Carnegie Library, the Museums of Art and Natural History, Carnegie Music Hall, Buhl Science Center and The Andy Warhol Museum. Robert Gangewere, for more than 30 years the editor of Carnegie Magazine, "was dealing with more than 500 years' of institutional and communal memories."

Mr. Gangewere begins his narrative with an engrossing account of Andrew Carnegie's early years in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh's North Side. In 1847, the Carnegie family embarked from Dunfermline, Scotland, to America in extreme poverty, and their lot hardly improved on this side of the pond. The teenage Andrew began working as a telegraph messenger boy, and sought to improve himself by borrowing books from the library of Col. James Anderson.

Anderson made his library of more than 400 volumes freely available to working boys, "lending each boy one book per week." When Anderson retired as librarian, he donated his library to Allegheny City, which sought to charge a lending fee to boys who were employed. Outraged by this, young Andrew wrote a letter to the newspaper, and its publication "got the library policy reversed." Mr. Gangewere traces Carnegie's lifelong belief in access to free libraries to this episode.

Carnegie funded libraries and the Institute with a strong notion of uplifting the masses and exposing the public to high culture and to the latest advances in science, art and technology, yet, he wrote, "I hope nothing in the gallery or hall will give offense to the simplest man or woman."

While the progressive influences of Herbert Spencer and Matthew Arnold compelled Carnegie to bring culture to the people, his Scots-Irish Presbyterian conservatism caused him to eschew blind philanthropy. He always got his money's worth and always extracted promises from cities to provide longtime financial support for the institutions he founded.

Because of this, "for most of the 20th century, the Institute was engaged in a battle for financial survival," and most of the first half of this book concerns the various ways the directors of the Carnegie Institute tried to raise money to keep the severely underfunded and under-endowed Institute afloat. That struggle still continues, as witnessed by the successful passing of a new city property tax as a dedicated revenue stream for the libraries.

This is not a gossipy book. As Mr. Gangewere dutifully gives a history of a succession of museum and library directors and their various managerial and financial approaches, one longs for a bit of dirt -- a lurid affair between curators, or a scandal involving the pillaging of an ancient artifact from the Roman campagna.

An account of how the Carnegie did not end up with G. David Thompson's world-class modern art collection would have certainly enlivened the chapters on the Museum of Art.

In fact, the section on the Museum of Art would have benefited from a more detailed look at some of the great exhibits of the past century, as well as some of the great works of art in the permanent collection.

For me, the 1985 International was an eye-opening, mind-blowing experience, exposing us yinzers for the first time to Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Julian Schnabel, among others. And recently, I had a cheerful debate with an old professor about our favorite paintings in the Carnegie (me: Georges Rouault's "Old King," him: John Singer Sargent's "Venetian Interior").

While Mr. Gangewere's account of the library and the Art Museum is surprisingly dry, his chronicle of the development of the Museum of Natural History is packed with amusing details, fastidiously intricate descriptions of the museum's vast holdings, and delightful portraits of some of the more notable personalities.

Andrey Avinoff, recently the subject of a major retrospective, for instance, is described as a "former member of the Russian aristocracy ... a familiar sight on Forbes Avenue -- an elegant, sparrow-boned man, with pince-nez and natty bowtie, reading as he walked."

There are many such charming vignettes and stories throughout this book, and one has to admire all the research and effort that went into the production of this elegant volume. As Mr. Gangewere writes, "My final manuscript ... was nearly twice as long as this published book could accommodate," and he hopes to make the rest of his research available in some "easily used archive."

In the meantime, Mr. Gangewere's narrative greatly enhances our appreciation of the Carnegie Museums and Library, and conversely, a visit to any of the Carnegie institutions would serve to augment and flesh out any reading of this book.


John Schulman is co-owner of Caliban Book Shop in Oakland.


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