Wilmerding's Westinghouse Museum preserves something that is close to being lost: the memory of how a corporation could build not just commodities, but communities.
Sure, the museum's four room-size galleries will teach you about Westinghouse's airbrake, and the company's role in broadcasting (which extended even to the He-Man cartoon series). You'll see patent applications and models of the friction draft gear. You'll meet Bertha Lamme -- the first U.S. woman with an electrical engineering degree -- and Elektro, the robotic hero of the 1939 World's Fair. (He had a 77-word vocabulary, could distinguish colors, and smoked cigarettes. I think I just found City Paper's next art director.)
But the museum celebrates Westinghouse's people as much as its products.
Though the company went belly-up a decade ago, its founder was the best kind of corporate paternalist. The handsome structure housing his museum is a good example. Known as the "Castle," it contained offices for the once-sprawling airbrake works nearby. But it also provided workers with amenities like a swimming pool and library.
And the museum returns the favor. One exhibit is a "memory quilt," which stitches together logos from Westinghouse's subsidiaries and endeavors. (One panel commemorates the "Three Mile Island Recovery Staff: We Came and Saved Your Ass.") The on-duty volunteer will likely be a former Westinghouse employee, and many exhibits were contributed by regular folks, whose offerings stand beside items on loan from the Smithsonian.
At its height, Westinghouse was a corporate giant -- a leader in the nuclear power and defense industries -- and a domestic friend, whose brand graced kitchens everywhere. Fittingly, the galleries here are part museum exhibit, part showroom. ("The BEVEL -- that's the thing," insists one ad for a clothes-iron on display.) You're even invited to touch some exhibits. Hear how Westinghouse dryers once played "How Dry I Am" when the laundry was finished! See for yourself the spacious interior of the two-door refrigerator!
Many museums are content telling you that an objet d'art was given by "anonymous," or some snootily named trust. Here, by contrast, you learn that the multi-speed blender on view was given as a wedding gift -- and "has whipped, beaten and mashed faithfully all these years." (Here's hoping the marriage itself proved as enduring, if less violent.)
Sadly, the Westinghouse museum's future is in doubt: The Castle has been sold, and the collection may one day end up at the Heinz History Center. The collection would be easier for visitors to find, sure. But it would also be farther from those who built it -- along with the company it celebrates.
The George Westinghouse Museum 325 Commerce St., Wilmerding. Free (donations accepted). 412-823-0500 or www.georgewestinghouse.com