Memo to SftP NYC

I want to alert you to a “science happening” in the Upper West Side of Manhattan that I think deserves our attention.  Unfortunately, it is no longer a happening we can do much about; it is a fait accompli.  I am referring to the recent opening of the Gilder Science Center as a new wing of the American Museum of Natural History.  The Museum announced the opening with understated triumphalism.

A New York Times encomium to the Gilder Center written by Michael Kimmelman was less restrained.

Warning: Kimmelman’s article and its photographs may instill in you an urgent desire to visit the Gilder Center.  It is indeed impressive.  But as the saying goes, “All that glitters is not gold.”  There is more to it than meets the eye, in ways that will probably not surprise any SftP members.

Kimmelman tips his hat to the “imperialistic and voracious” history of the Museum, and mentions, in passing, “years of sometimes acrimonious community engagement.”  That was an acknowledgement of the strong local pushback against the Gilder Center project in the neighborhoods surrounding the Museum.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the New York chapter of SftP wasn’t meeting at the height of the anti-Gilder protests.  It is too late to challenge it now, but at least we might want to provide historical perspective in order to help the public understand why it wasn’t such a great idea.

The moving spirits driving the project were not scientists or science educators, but billionaire investors.  It was a science-themed high-finance operation that grew into an unstoppable juggernaut crushing all critics, questioners, and protesters in its path.  Unsurprisingly, it enjoyed the unwavering bipartisan support of the political establishment at all levels.  The politicians milked the public’s fascination with the “gee whiz” aspects of science to sell the big-money construction scheme.

No one was protesting the creation of a beneficial new science education facility.  But while acknowledging that the shiny new science center could indeed serve to advance science education, they asked why it could not be constructed in one of New York City’s many underserved communities that suffer from a paucity of educational resources?  The Upper West Side of Manhattan, with the American Museum of Natural History as it was, already enjoyed an embarrassment of riches with regard to science education facilities.

Cary Goodman was a prominent opponent of the project for several years. Here are excerpts from a letter Dr. Goodman wrote to the New York Times in response to Michael Kimmelman’s previously mentioned puff piece praising the Gilder Center:

The new wing is neither “poetic” nor “theatrical.” The new wing is an extension of the museum’s colonial heritage and world view.  The new wing has been constructed at the cost of ancient trees, an enormous increase in air pollution, and with disregard for wildlife and residents.

Shamefully, the City Council increased its financing for the expansion by more than 600% in five years to $92,000,000.  Amazingly, no elected official opposed the private museum’s encroachment on public parkland.

Five thousand neighbors and park goers, including prominent West Siders like Bill Moyers, Holland Taylor, Philip Roth, and Billie Jean King, petitioned against the expansion.  At public hearings, the museum turned off opponents’ microphones, ignored requests for information, and crippled democracy.

Mr. Kimmelman excuses his bias in favor of the museum by writing that he might be “coming from a blinkered space.”  Might this explain why the Times, alone among all New York media, never met with, listened to, or wrote about the other side of this “joyful” story?

We might want to solicit a more in-depth analysis of the issue from Dr. Goodman.  I have heard him speak eloquently and at length about it, so I know he has a lot more to say about it.

–Cliff Conner

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