Did you know there is a soaring three-story Grand Staircase connecting Carnegie Museum of Art to the Museum of Natural History?
Surrounding the Grand Staircase inside the museum is a sweeping mural that was commissioned for the 1907 expansion of the Carnegie Institute building. Covering almost 4,000 square feet of wall space the mural The Crowning of Labor (1905–1908), by John White Alexander, reflects turn of the century Western ideals of progress across three floors of the Grand Staircase. Alexander, born in Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh’s North Side), was given creative freedom for the project, and the resulting murals tell a story of Pittsburgh through the lens of Andrew Carnegie’s vision of the steel industry and the wealth gained through Industrial Capitalism that fueled his philanthropy. He completed the first elements of the mural in 1907 and the remainder in 1908. He died before finishing the panels for the third floor.
While the depiction of working-class people was novel for murals at the time, in today’s context, they only tell a small part of Pittsburgh’s history. This vision does not reflect the socioeconomic and racial realities of the city, and this imagined apotheosis was not accessible to everyone, no matter how hard one worked.
The first floor depicts laborers amidst dark smoke, romanticizing the toil that laid the foundation of Pittsburgh’s wealth and the rise of the city through the steel industry. The second-floor panels capture the hopeful notion that hard work will elevate mankind: the knight (who some say resembles Andrew Carnegie) being crowned embodies the ascendance of Pittsburgh, and the allegorical female figures symbolize knowledge and culture. The paintings on the third floor are meant to represent some of Pittsburgh’s residents, with men, women, and children marching towards an enlightened future gained through education. Alexander died before completing the final panels that would have portrayed Carnegie’s cultural pillars of art, science, music, and literature, and they have since remained unfinished.