BY JENNIFER LOCONTE
The National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH), located on Bethlehem’s Southside, is a must-see for locals and tourists alike. Housed in the 100-year-old former Bethlehem Steel factory, the museum first opened its doors this past August after 18 years in the making. Through thought-provoking and interactive exhibits, the museum invites guests of all ages to participate in learning more about the United States’ rich, industrial heritage.
The vision of NMIH is “to tell the story of America’s industrial achievements and the accomplishments of our workers, innovators, and entrepreneurs.”
There are four different galleries all of which offer interactive exhibits, making the museum a must-visit for kids. For example, listeners can hear the voices of actors portraying Walt Whitman and Susan B. Anthony telling their own personal stories of industry during their lifetimes.
The first exhibit area, called Machinery Hall, includes 21 different artifacts from the Smithsonian Institute that had also been on display at the National Museum of American History. The largest display features a 115-ton cordless steam engine that formerly pumped water for the city of York. This massive exhibit needed a lot of care and had to be completely restored. Visitors will also view original Bethlehem Steel models of the blast furnaces. These models were used to train new employees. There is a large interactive display that shows where Bethlehem Steel owned industries all over the world, where their steel was used, shipbuilding facilities and the countries from where employees hailed. Interestingly enough, this melting pot of workers migrated toward different areas of the Lehigh Valley, much of which can still be seen today.
There is an abundance of iconic artifacts in this hall, including original punch cards, shift whistles, tool boxes, signage, hard hats and a safety report from 1909 with information on losses of limbs and unfortunate deaths. Men worked for 12 hours per day, six days per week for 10 cents an hour. Welfare baskets, complete with locks (think open-air personal lockers), hang suspended from the ceiling, just as they did during the time when Bethlehem Steel was in operation. There are also displays of Bethlehem Steel’s role in both WWI and WWII. Over 1,000 ships were built in WWII alone.
The Silk Gallery Hall tells the story of the working women and children whose husbands and fathers worked for Bethlehem Steel. Museum visitors will meet Mother Jones, a much-needed champion of children’s rights. Kids of all ages worked 12 hours per day at the mill. There was no school, and many were injured. Today’s kids can get an idea of what life was like at the silk mill by picking up and carrying a tray of silk bobbins, weighing almost 20 pounds. Thanks to Mother Jones, work hours were decreased, and better pay was made a priority.
The Propane Gallery tells our national history through a local lens. Walter O. Snelling, the first person who discovered how to distill propane, at one time resided in Allentown. His collection of instruments and materials were donated by his family. Another great attraction for kids includes a hot-air balloon simulation that takes you on a trip to a processing plant and a distribution plant, as well as showing propane uses, like fuel for school buses. There is also an interactive game on how to build a pipeline safely from start to finish.
Back at the beginning of the museum, there is a gift shop as well as a changing gallery, currently housing 3-D printers, loaned by Lehigh University and Northampton Area Community College, which show where industry is headed. There, visitors will also find a variety of rooms and spaces available for public use. There is a 1,200-square-foot education center featuring top-of-the-line audio-visual and telecom capabilities for meetings, conferences, lectures and more. The whole museum, including lobby area and exhibit galleries, can also be rented for a corporate reception, cocktail party or intimate seated dinner.
For additional information, visit nmih.org.