Alan J. Friedman, a physicist described as an eternal educator and credited with saving the New York Hall of Science, died of pancreatic cancer Sunday, his wife said. He was 71.
When Friedman started as director of the New York Hall of Science in 1984, close to an inch of water covered the floor of the institution that opened in Flushing Meadows Corona Park during the 1964 World’s Fair. The exhibits had been given away and the lights were yanked off the wall, according to the hall.
Friedman retired from the hall in 2006. That year 447,000 visited a museum known for its interactive exhibits, Science Career Ladder training program for students and an outdoor playground offering lessons on motion, balance and simple machines.
“It was a very steep learning curb. He had not headed an institution before, much less an institution in New York City,” said his wife, Mickey Friedman. “Other people might have quit.”
Friedman’s leadership was not limited to Queens. As chairman of the Cultural Institutions Group, a coalition of city museums and arts centers, Friedman railed against former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s plans to impose a “decency standard” on city-funded museums and pull finances from the Brooklyn Museum over an exhibit the mayor considered offensive around the turn of the century.
“New Yorkers are pretty savvy, and they can decide what to see or not to see,” Friedman told TimesLedger Newspapers at the time. “I’m going to call for [the mayor’s] impeachment every time he does something I don’t like.”
Friedman was born in Brooklyn, but moved to Georgia when he was young, his wife said.
He studied at the Georgia Institute of Technology and earned a doctorate in physics from Florida State University, where he met his wife.
She said he soon uncovered a talent for communicating complex scientific ideas to those outside the field and went on to work as director of physics and astronomy at the University of California’s Lawrence Hall of Science.
He had been consulting a Paris museum while it planned to open the largest science center in the world when his wife said the challenge of leading the Hall of Science beckoned him.
In Queens, Hall of Science Vice President of External Affairs Dan Wempa said Friedman acquired a reputation as an eager educator, always looking to learn from those around him and tinkering with exhibits.
“An exhibit was never really finished,” Wempa said, noting that one time Friedman stopped to chat with elementary schoolchildren on his way to the office and then described what he learned from their feedback in a memo, saying, “‘I just had the most fascinating conversation with a fourth-grader.’”
Friedman worked as a consultant to museums worldwide after retiring from the New York Hall of Science.
Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@c