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Threatened museums look to partners
Fort Pitt and Bushy Run could be closed
Friday, March 20, 2009
By Len Barcousky, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission is considering recommendations to close the Fort Pitt and Bushy Run museums, but supporters say there may be a way to keep the museums open with volunteers and partnerships with other historical institutions.

"Now is not the time to start closing these places," Bill Flanagan, executive director of Pittsburgh 250, said yesterday. "We're aware it will take creative solutions ... and probably a different model to keep them open."

Pittsburgh 250, a part of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, is the umbrella organization that oversaw the regional commemoration of the 1758 founding of Pittsburgh.

Among the possible solutions:

? Volunteers from the Friends of the Fort Pitt Museum and the Bushy Run Battlefield Heritage Society could help staff the facilities and provide programs, reducing operating costs.

? Financial responsibility for the upkeep and operation of the Fort Pitt museum building could be shared among several partners, including the museum commission, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The DAR owns and operates the 18th century blockhouse adjacent to the Fort Pitt Museum.

? The Fort Pitt Museum could become affiliated with a larger local historical organization, like the Senator John Heinz History Center.

"The arguments are pretty powerful that this museum has its best days ahead," said Donn Neal, president of the Friends of the Fort Pitt Museum. "We have a great collection, a vigorous friends' organization and interest in the era built up during the recent War for Empire celebration."

War for Empire is one of several names given to a worldwide conflict that in North America is usually known as the French and Indian War.

"We shouldn't be hasty in closing a site that is at one of the most pivotal points in Pennsylvania history," Mr. Neal said. "Independence Hall, Gettysburg and the forks of the Ohio are three treasures the commonwealth should be preserving."

The possible closings would affect the staffed museums but not the parks in which they are located. They were discussed in Harrisburg on Wednesday by the commission as part of its review of a staff-produced study that looked at the future of all state historic sites.

The proposals to shut the museums moved to a faster track as part of a cost-cutting effort needed to shrink a more than $2 billion deficit in Pennsylvania's budget.

To balance its 2009-10 budget, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission may have to lay off as many as 48 of its 300 employees, according to Laura Fisher, senior vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and a member of the commission. She said the effects of such drastic cuts would be devastating.

Bushy Run, located north of Jeanette in Westmoreland County, was the site of a 1763 battle between Native American warriors and a British Army coming to break an Indian siege of Fort Pitt.

The Fort Pitt Museum is housed in a reproduction of one of the bastions of the 18th century fortress the British built at the Point. That fort, around which Pittsburgh developed, gave the British -- and later the United States -- control over the vast territory along the Ohio River.

The Fort Pitt Museum and the adjoining blockhouse are in Point State Park, which has itself just undergone a $35 million restoration.

"The museum facility and its present program, while pleasant add-ons, are not necessary to the park's essential function," the sustainability report concluded. "Since two other major institutions close by also tell the same story as Fort Pitt Museum, it is recommended that [the museum commission] close Fort Pitt Museum and remove the artifacts ..."

Those two institutions are the private, nonprofit Heinz History Center and Fort Ligonier.

Andrew Masich, president of the history center, said a consolidation of his institution and the Fort Pitt Museum could be good for both museums, for the Pittsburgh and for the state budget.

The history center already has education, curatorial and marketing departments, he said, and it could provide those services to both institutions at a lower cost, he said.

The museum and visitors center at Bushy Run operates between April and October. Most visitors come to the site for recreation or to walk the battlefield, according to the state study. "The visitor center and its exhibits are secondary to that experience," the report said.

The center could be closed, and responsibility for programs and maintenance shifted to the 200-member Bushy Run Battlefield Heritage Society or the borough of Jeanette, the study proposed.

None of the recommendations in the sustainability report are final, Mrs. Fisher said. Before any action is taken, the proposals will be the subject of public hearings to be held around the state.

No details have been released yet on dates and locations for the hearings.

Len Barcousky can be reached at or 724-772-0184.
First published on March 20, 2009 at 12:00 am
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