Our Story

The Senator John Heinz History Center traces its roots back to 1879, making it the oldest cultural institution in Western Pennsylvania.

In 1879, the Old Residents of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania established a historical society to help preserve local history. Five years later, the name changed to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and has been in continuous existence for more than 135 years.

Known now as the Senator John Heinz History Center, the museum system includes the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, the Thomas & Katherine Detre Library & Archives, the Fort Pitt Museum, Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village, and the Museum Conservation Center.

Originally, membership in the historical society was limited to men who had lived in the region for 50 years or more, though the rules changed within a few years to include women and younger people. In those days, members enjoyed lectures and country outings and got together to reminisce. Perhaps most importantly, early Historical Society members worked to preserve archival materials and objects of historic significance, forming the foundation of the History Center’s collections.

The Historical Society brought our region’s history to the public. In 1908, it celebrated the region’s 150th anniversary; in 1911, the centennial of steamboat navigation; in 1958, the region’s bicentennial celebration; and in 2008, the region’s 250th anniversary. These events served as the basis for the many events, publications, educational programs, and exhibitions that the History Center offers today.

Early meetings of the Historical Society were held in members’ homes and churches, though a significant step was taken in 1893 when the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh at Schenley Park offered space for the archives. In 1914, after securing the funding, the Historical Society built its own building on Bigelow Blvd. In 1996, the History Center moved into its current home in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

With the opening of the Smithsonian wing in 2004, the History Center became the largest history museum in Pennsylvania. The new wing allows better opportunities found in our affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution. The additional space added the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, the Mueller Education Center, the Special Collections Gallery, and the McGuinn Gallery for traveling exhibitions.

Since its opening, the Smithsonian wing has been home to various exhibitions, including Pennsylvania’s Civil War, Vatican Splendors, 1968: The Year that Rocked America, Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia, We Can Do It! WWII, Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and #Pixburgh: A Photographic Experience.

In 2014, the History Center opened the new Museum Conservation Center, located directly behind the museum on Penn Avenue. The nine-story building houses the museum’s artifacts under one roof with Smithsonian-quality storage.

History Minute

In this KQV Radio History Minute, History Center President and CEO Andy Masich talks about the history of the History Center’s Smallman Street building.