The modern world was born at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, forming the mighty Ohio. Sure, there are metaphorical ways to interpret that statement–Pittsburgh as industrial powerhouse or even environmental catastrophe reversed and reinvented–but I’ve dwelt on this sentiment for a long time in a very direct sense. It was a mission to claim this vital strategic area that led a young George Washington to inadvertently spark what would become the French and Indian War, a globe-spanning conflict that would lead to Britain consolidating its hold over India and, through victory, incurring so much debt that its subsequent taxation policies spurred its Atlantic colonies to rebel a decade later. The rest, as they say, is history.
Walking into the Fort Pitt Museum, situated at the juncture of all these and many more events of national and global significance, then, I was hoping for what so many smaller history museums attempt to do with varying levels of success: confidently portray local events as vital to the larger currents of history. Yet here, of all places, I was met by a lack of interpretational ambition. The museum’s location in Point State Park couldn’t be better, and its exhibits admirably face the complex politics of the colonial frontier honestly, giving British, French, and indigenous viewpoints not just on the French and Indian War but on Pontiac’s War and the Revolution as well. A wide array of artifacts and surprisingly convincing mannequins further brings these events to life, and the views of the Point and Monongahela from its second floor galleries are not to be missed.
That, however, was it. No appeals to colonial Fort Duquesne/Fort Pitt’s role in shaping modern history as we know it, not even an interpretation of the wider strategic context of the French and Indian War and why the British ultimately triumphed or an explanation of how Pontiac’s War led directly to the Proclamation Line of 1763 banning European settlement west of the Appalachians, a major source of colonial resentment leading to the American Revolution. It was as if the Fort Pitt Museum had resolved to simply describe history as it entered the Western Pennsylvania/Eastern Ohio region, and then stop describing it as soon as it left.
Needless to say, I couldn’t help but be frustrated as we left the museum behind to venture deeper into downtown on that lovely Pittsburgh afternoon. I have tried hard to value all history on its own merits and not be one of those hidebound professors that must always demand to know “why it mattered,” but I also can’t bear to see such a golden interpretational opportunity left lying in the dust. Yes, part of my bombastic claims for all this local history is because I’m a proud native of the area, but that’s almost my point: what better place to instill deserved historical pride in the Steel City–not to mention some wider perspectives that Americans are habitually in need of–than the museum relating the city’s origin story? The Fort Pitt Museum remains a charming institution, great for an hour or two of familiarizing yourself with the region. But I will always dream of it being so much more.