The Physicist Who Saved the Hall of Science

We launched the NYSCI Archives almost two months ago with a look back at 1966 when the Hall of Science reopened as a permanent museum following the World’s Fair. Two weeks ago, we looked back even further to 1964 and the opening of the Fair, at which time the Hall was still a work in progress.

Today, we jump forward 20 years, to 1984 and the arrival of Alan J. Friedman as Director of the Hall of Science. These memories are difficult ones because we learned yesterday that Alan passed away following a battle with cancer. He is gone too soon. But he left us so much.

In fact, you can say Alan left us everything. Everything the Hall of Science has become would be nothing if not for Alan Friedman.

Hall of Science Names Pioneer as New Director

When Alan arrived in 1984, the Hall of Science had been hollowed: “There was an inch of water on the floor. All the exhibits had been given away. Even the light fixtures had been yanked out of the wall.”

The museum had been closed since 1981. $2.9 million was appropriated in the City capital budget for renovations to include construction of a 13,000 square-foot mezzanine, a 100-seat planetarium, and new lighting, heating and cooling systems. The Board pledged to raise additional private funds for new exhibits and programs. (News accounts differ on the amount of the private fundraising goal. We’ve seen it pegged anywhere from $3 to $8 million.)

In May of 1982, the Daily News observed that inside the Hall “an almost tangible tranquility prevails.” But outside, “paint peels from the Saturn V and Apollo hulls, and graffiti adorn the walls around the space park; chipped cement and scattered stones fill the moat beneath the hall. But a sign at the gate assures: ‘Closed for renovation. Will reopen in 1983.’”

The capital renovations were completed, but in August of 1983, Cultural Affairs Commissioner Bess Myerson declared the Hall a failure and cut City funding. Only, $40,000 of the $8 million private fundraising had been achieved, and Myerson said that the museum would never be successful as it was currently constituted. She also felt the Flushing Meadows location of the Hall was an obstacle too great to overcome. Queens Borough President, Donald Manes, countered that Myerson was suffering from “Manhattanitis.”

A deal was brokered. The Hall of Science received partial funding from the City. A new Board was constituted. And in the aftermath, Alan Friedman was hired as Director.

Never again would the viability of the Hall of Science be called into question. Perhaps Alan’s greatest contribution to the Hall was giving it its permanence. The World’s Fair relic that had been shuttered three times before; the rockets with their peeling paint and graffiti tags; the museum that had given away its exhibits and had no proper entrance.

In the year before he arrived, the Hall of Science had an attendance of zero. In 2006, the year Alan retired, the Hall of Science had 447,000 visitors. In 1984, the Hall had five staff members.  In 2006, there were more than 90 full-time employees and more than 150 high school and college students employed as Explainers in the Science Career Ladder–a program created in 1986 under Alan’s leadership. The museum galleries that in 1984 displayed nothing other than standing water and feral cats boasted more than 450 hands-on exhibits in 2006.

In 1996, a $13 million expansion gave the Hall a new entrance rotunda, driveway, cafe, gift shop and theater. A year later, the 30,000 square-foot Science Playground opened, inspired by outdoor science parks Alan had discovered on a trip to India. In 2001, the rockets were dismantled, shipped to Ohio for restoration, and returned to the new Rocket Park in 2004. Later that year, the $92 million North Wing opened.

These were the major milestones. The minor ones were no less important to shaping the Hall of Science.

His approach was as simple as it was revolutionary. ‘‘Normally museums get together the best experts they can,” he said, ”have them design the exhibits, build them, put them out – and pray they work.”  But Alan’s approach to curating exhibits was a bit more iterative. “If they don’t get the message across, we’ll change them.”

Alan retired in 2006 and became an advisor and consultant to museums and universities worldwide. He ultimately had a 40-year career. He mentored hundreds of museum professionals, many of whom have written to share their memories of Alan. We know how important he was to the Hall of Science, but there’s also ample evidence of his impact and influence elsewhere. He helped us make sense of international student assessments.  He rallied his fellow museum directors to stand with one of their besieged colleagues. Just last month, he looked at what is happening to Detroit’s art museums and wondered “what exactly were the cost-benefit ratios of Newton’s laws, or of the Parthenon?”

We can write more. And we will.  There is much more of Alan Friedman to be discovered in the NYSCI Archives. For now, we miss him. He is gone too soon. But he left us so much.

UPDATE May 7: The New York Times ran Alan’s obituary today. Read it here.

Read all the posts in the NYSCI Archive.