In The Lead: A smart, curious Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh has many places to soak up knowledge

Pittsburgh's collective brainpower has earned some high marks the last couple of years.

The metro region was 19 out of 100 in a 2012 ranking of "America's smartest cities" from the company that makes Lumosity games and exercises.

Though Pittsburgh dropped to 53rd when the Lumosity folks updated their data last year, it earned the top spot on a 2013 ranking of the 10 smartest cities in the United States that was compiled by Movoto, a San Mateo, Calif.-based online real estate brokerage.

While the companies behind those surveys acknowledge that a strong concentration of colleges and universities helped to boost the region's scores, plenty of other cultural and learning resources give Pittsburghers the chance to soak up knowledge — and those resources are not limited to the classroom.

Consider the smartphone application the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland developed for the Carnegie International exhibit that opened in October.

It provided visitors to the popular show a portable, hand-held guide to works created by artists from around the globe.

Since the International closed in March, the museum has developed an app for its permanent collection that includes personal perspectives on art from museum staff.

"We consider the museum to be an education institution. We think everything we do is educational," said Marilyn Russell, curator of education.

While technology allows visitors to check their phones for exhibit information or listen to audio guides while strolling through the Carnegie's galleries, they also can take the traditional route and read printed text descriptions mounted on the museum's walls.

To provide more formal learning about art, the Carnegie invites artists to conduct gallery talks about their work. During the International, more than a dozen such events drew visitors and proved to be "transformative experiences," Ms. Russell said.

Among those who gave lectures were Dinh Q. Le, a native of Vietnam who grew up in the U.S. and returned to Vietnam as an adult to get insights for his work about the Vietnam War.

Kamran Shirdel, an Iranian filmmaker whose documentaries have at times been banned in his country, appeared at two events during the International. Ms. Russell described his discussions as, "way better than any pundit on television and equally as profound as taking a university course in seeing how the artist translated his real-world experiences into film."

During this summer's "Masters of Printmaking" exhibit, among the planned activities is a workshop where participants can learn how prints are made and why each is unique.

"These are some of the ways we engage people to be inspired about how artists give us a sense of the world," said Ms. Russell. "We consider that a great contribution to a smart community.

"Being well-educated is being more of a flexible thinker, open to new experiences and able to confront what we encounter in business, politics or other experiences with greater flexibility of mind."

At the Sen. John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, tours and interactive education programs are designed for students in grades K-12, and the museum offers special workshops and activities for teachers to earn professional development credits. Adult education includes lectures such as an appearance last year by Pittsburgh-born author and historian David McCullough.

"The theme of all our adult education is empowering people to think about their own history because it's as important as the big, national and international stories that happen," said Sandra Smith, director of education and visitor services.

To that end, the history center holds an annual "Hidden Treasures" event — a community version of "Antiques Roadshow" — to encourage members and visitors to dig up family artifacts and heirlooms, and get them appraised by professionals.

"It's a fun way for people to appreciate their own personal history and there is a lot here because, in Pittsburgh, people don't move every 10 years," said Ms. Smith.

The "Night at the History Center" events in which young visitors such as Scout troops sleep over and interact with famous historic re-enactors — Andrew Carnegie and George Washington, among them — have proved so popular that the museum has considered expanding the concept with an event for adults. That might feature a murder mystery theme instead of a sleepover, she said.

Because the history center is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., it has access to a broad range of resources, such as a National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl that was broadcast over the Internet and featured documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

"We get a lot out of the Smithsonian," Ms. Smith said.

Long before local museums were tapping into Web technology and people were playing brain games on their iPads and smartphones, Pittsburgh was a pioneering place for dispensing knowledge.

Founded here in 1786, The Gazette was the first newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains.

In November 1920, KDKA-AM received the first commercial radio license in the world and hit the airwaves on Election Night to broadcast updates on the Harding-Fox presidential race.

In 1954, WQED-TV was launched as the first community-sponsored station in the U.S. and in 1959, its sister station, WQEX-TV, started delivering educational programming to the region's schools.

— Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.

First Published May 13, 2014 11:26 AM

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