Can You Truly Enjoy a Museum Without Already Knowing the History?
The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania holds the largest collection of Warhol’s artworks and archival materials. The 7 levels of art displays and history on the artist are portrayed to invoke artistry within the visitors while promoting a sense of awe for the creativity Andy Warhol possessed. While I was enraptured by the art and creativity of Warhol’s pieces, I felt continually disappointed in my knowledge and the lack of clarity on his life story throughout my visit to the museum.
I visited the Andy Warhol Museum in February 2021. While I had heard of Andy Warhol as an artist, I only knew of vague references to his pop art i.e. Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe's pop art portrait. My excitement to learn about this artist and understand more of the world he created for himself quickly was overshadowed. As I soon felt thoroughly unprepared to be in this space centered on Warhol’s artistry without extensive study on his art and life beforehand.
The museum is organized to start on the top floor and then work your way down to The Factory education studio and conservation lab. The top floor provided a clear introduction to Andy Warhol’s childhood and early commercial art career in New York City. The first room of the top floor was challenging to navigate with COVID-19 regulations and following the floor direction diagrams. If the floor directions were purely followed, you miss several pieces of information on his ties to Pittsburgh. However, the detail of the blotted line technique and the commercial art pieces that were displayed on that level detailed clear examples of his early ideas on art and an insight into his early success in commercial art.
The floors were largely organized by decades in Warhol’s life with some small deviances from the order. Each of these floors began with a series of panels depicting each year of the decade noting major events in the artist’s life. The top floor included years both before and after the 1960s as an attempt to provide additional information. But those panels frequently left me with more confusion and questions about his life and works. A reference on the top floor of the museum noted pictures after his surgery and yet there were no references to what surgery or the reasons behind it. Additionally, there were frequent references to, what I assume is, iconic art pieces without any images or references of what those artworks looked like, or even why they were significant in the specific area of art.
The third floor was distinctly different from the ones above it, as it was home to the archival materials and offices dedicated to research on Andy Warhol and his art. This level included displays of the vast archival materials that Andy Warhol collected as well as insights into the Time Capsules that Warhol filled, sealed, and stored. The materials selected for display demonstrated a different side to Warhol and in some instances clarified some of his life that had been truncated in the previous depictions, including his life following the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol with colorful corsets. Additionally, it was interesting that some of the clearest references to Warhol’s sexuality were on this floor rather than some of the previous floors. Admittedly there were references to his various lovers and relationships with portraits and photographs of them, but there was not a clear conversation with that until the archives floor and even then, it was still only small references.
The final floor was closed during my visit for a new exhibit installation. It is also important to note that the Andy Warhol Museum has frequent exhibit changes and manages such a large collection that different works of art are rotated in their displays. The pieces that I saw in February of 2021 are representative of both limitations of COVID-19 capacity and the items chosen for exhibition at that time.
Overall, the Andy Warhol Museum provided an opportunity to throw yourself into the world of Andy Warhol and attempt to understand the man behind famous pop art pieces and his controversial films. Throughout my experience, I was awed by his creativity and bizarre persona, but I was constantly wanting more information and clarity than what was provided with the signage. I read every plaque and piece of information as I moved through the exhibits, but the sheer quantity of assumed knowledge often left me floundering and confused. I left the Andy Warhol Museum with a strong desire to learn more about the artist while somewhat disappointed in being unable to get a clear depiction of his life and works while there. None of my disappointment, however, takes away from the immersive and inspiring experience that the Andy Warhol Museum evokes in its visitors. The Andy Warhol Museum truly maintained its goal as a platform for creative expression and experimentation, only falling short with its large assumption of pre-knowledge on Andy Warhol.
Alex Warren is a public historian who recently completed her master's in public history at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about digital opportunities to engage public audiences.