In science there is a principle as basic as gravity: follow the data. Pay attention to what your experiments or experiences tell you, for better or for worse, whether you like the results or not. This fundamental tenet of the scientific method, adherents believe, will lead you to something that can be called truth.
Alan J. Friedman was a physicist by training, one who turned from the laboratory to the museum as a way to help others find their own ways to truth. For 22 years, from 1984 to 2006, he was director of the New York Hall of Science – NYSCI for short – on the old World’s Fair grounds in Queens. He did nothing less than rescue it. When he began, the museum had a staff of five and no visitors. By the time he retired in 2006, it had a staff of 90 and nearly half a million visitors per year.
We know about Dr. Friedman because we do pro bono work for NYSCI (Stuart Fischer is on its board of trustees and the museum is a client of our firm, RLM Finsbury). Personally, we admired his determination to spread science to many young people who otherwise might never have had the means or the opportunity to pursue it. In 1986 he started a program called the Science Career Ladder, an employment and career mentorship program that the museum says has helped more than 3,000 young New Yorkers, most from underserved communities, go to college and on to fruitful careers. The students work at NYSCI as “Explainers.” They interpret exhibits, do demonstrations and talk to visitors about the science behind the museum’s displays. Dr. Friedman reveled in their success.
He was Brooklyn-born, but his soft Southern accent belied that. He was raised in Georgia, studied and taught at Georgia Tech and Florida State, and worked at museums in Paris and Berkeley before coming home to rejuvenate NYSCI. He championed “informal science learning,” the kind that happens in the playground or the exhibit hall instead of the classroom.
It was perhaps ironic, then, that he became most visible, not for science but for art. In 1999 the Brooklyn Museum hosted an exhibition called Sensation, and it caused one. One piece in particular, a depiction of the Virgin Mary, seemed designed to disgust, and Rudolph Giuliani, then the mayor of New York, threatened to withhold the $7 million annual funding the museum received from the city. “You don’t have a right to government subsidy for desecrating somebody else’s religion,” he was quoted as saying.
The piece was genuinely offensive to many, and some critics called it a cynical play for attention. Alan Friedman himself wrote, “We are mindful of, and sympathetic to, the sensitivities of the many diverse communities throughout New York City.”
It was not really his battle to fight – he ran a science museum, after all – but he happened at the time to be the head of an association of New York cultural institutions, and so it was thrust upon him. He persuaded more than 30 museum heads to sign a letter to Mr. Giuliani, warning of a “chilling effect on all cultural institutions’ ability to exercise their professional judgment and take the risks inherent in experimentation.” The exhibit remained open. Friends said Dr. Friedman had kept to the scientific creed: follow the data, whether or not you like what you see.
“Your courage in leading the museum directors in defending museums’ intellectual freedom and integrity has long inspired and awed me,” wrote Laura Roberts, a museum director and consultant who knew him for many years. “Thank you for showing us all what was right, even when difficult.”
By now you have probably guessed where this story is going. Alan Friedman died this month of pancreatic cancer. He was 71.
“He nurtured young talent and set the gold standard,” said his friend Seth Dubin, a trustee and former president of NYSCI. “He was a showman and a scholar.”
He was also a physicist with an artist’s soul. A month before he died, he was still at it, urging the bankrupt city of Detroit to hold onto its museum collection. “New York’s parks, botanic gardens and zoos are expensive,” he wrote, “but in the weeks after 9/11 they were filled with people who sought solace with trees, flowers and animals. What’s the dollar value of solace?"
All images courtesy of the New York Hall of Science.