Visitors to the new National Museum of Industrial History, open today in Bethlehem, will be engaging with history before they even set foot inside the museum. It's built on the nation's largest privately-owned brownfield site, in what was Bethlehem Steel's electric repair shop.
The museum documents America's transition from agrarian to industrial. Visitors will learn about all facets of industrialization, from the rise of the steel mills and textile industry to labor movements and protests. Much of that history has its roots in Pennsylvania, which is why the state draws a lot of the focus in the initial exhibits.
"Every global story has a local element and if we want people to connect, there has to be a person, an invention that started in a local place," said executive director Amy Hollander. "And then, how did that local story become a global one?"
The museum is interactive: there are scavenger hunts and audio recordings to listen in on. See how much horsepower you can generate with a hand-cranked flywheel train engine, or try holding a 20 pound tray of bobbins from the silk mill. (Don't get too cocky. Child laborers used to carry those trays for nine hours a day.)
The NMIH was the first museum to be named a Smithsonian affiliate, meaning it will host exhibits from the Smithsonian collection on loan. While the museum was being developed, others have become affiliates as well.
Currently, a popular Smithsonian exhibit about the 1876 World's Fair in Philadelphia is on show. Hollander says this was the first time America stepped onto the world's stage as something other than an agrarian society.