Bookmark and Share

Curator, the Queens Museum, 1985–1991

New York World's Fairs

H. Pierre Montiel's hand drawn map of Flushng Meadow Park
Artist and World's Fair enthusiast H. Pierre Montiel created this map of Flushing Meadow Park, and used it to lead tours for the Queens Museum. The museum (#2) is situated among other sites from the New York World's Fairs in 1939 and 1964.

The Queens Museum sits in a historic location: Flushing Meadows Park, site of the two New York World's Fairs, in 1939–40 and in 1964–65. The museum building itself had housed the New York City Pavilion at both fairs. It's difficult to exaggerate the impact these two mega-exhibitions had on two generations of attendees numbering in the tens of millions. Not a day went by during my tenure as curator without nostalgic park visitors showing up at the museum to ask about the World's Fairs.

These "World's Fair Nuts" (as we affectionately called them) seemed to be a distraction from the museum's focus on fine art exhibitions, but director Janet Schneider appreciated their enthusiasm. Already in 1985, Schneider had brought in Helen Harrison to curate Dawn of a New Day: The New York World's Fair, 1939–1940, which became (by any standard) the museum's most successful exhibition.

Remembering the Future

As I was starting out at the museum, the two World's Fairs were about to draw even more attention. 1989 would mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first New York World's Fair and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the second. It was clear that the museum would need to commemorate the occasion. Learning more about the fairs, I became hooked, and started to take responsibility for more and more of the museum's World's Fair activities. Through new bequests and a tiny pool of purchase funds, the museum's small World's Fair collection quickly expanded. We created a World's Fair Society and a regular newsletter. A series of World's Fair weekends drew huge, enthusiastic crowds for talks, films, tours of the park, and a flea market full of World's Fair collectibles. Ultimately, there was the giant exhibition Remembering the Future: The New York World's Fair from 1939 to 1964, which I worked on with project director Ileen Sheppard.

Robert Moses

For the exhibition's catalogue, I wrote about Robert Moses, who had transformed a garbage dump into the site of the 1939 World's Fair (and later, Flushing Meadows Park). Twenty-five years later, as he neared retirement, Moses was named director of the 1964 fair. Once again, Moses managed a feat of organization, but this time many of his decisions drew criticism. Whereas the 1939 fair had thrilled visitors with its theme, "Dawn of the New Day," and its accompanying vision of the future, the public had less enthusiasm for the 1964 fair's display of how that future had come to pass—especially since (as many critics claimed) Moses's vision seemed stuck in the 1950s, and ignored the revolutionary changes brewing in the 1960s.

The Unisphere

For me, the '64 fair was a fascinating microcosm of its time. I was particularly interested in the Unisphere, built for the '64 fair by Moses's associate Gilmore Clarke. Critics had unfavorably compared the Unisphere to the Trylon and Perisphere, the architectural "Theme Center" of the '39 fair. Where the Trylon and Perisphere's abstract forms had seemed to express human aspirations for the future, the Unisphere was seen as just a ho-hum globe. In truth, the Unisphere is probably one of the twentieth century's most significant monuments. The rings that surround the globe reflect the contemporary excitement surrounding the launch of the first satellites and the dawn of the space age. That such an important moment in human history is so effectively marked by such an imposing structure in such a clear way is quite remarkable. While the Trylon and Perisphere were temporary plaster constructions, the steel Unisphere is a monument for the ages.

The two anniversaries sparked a media frenzy around the New York World's Fairs. The Queens Museum was Ground Zero. As curator, I gave countless interviews and often found myself in photos like this one, from the New York Daily News, taken next to the monument marking the site where two time capsules were buried, one in 1939 and one in 1964.
For the World's Fair anniversaries, the Queens Museum mounted the exhibition "Remembering the Future: The New York World's Fair from 1939 to 1964." The ambitious catalogue, published by Rizzoli International, featured essays by Robert Rosenblum, Morris Dickstein, Sheldon J. Reaven, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, Helen A. Harrison, Ileen Sheppard, and myself.
World's Fair Anniversary Weekend program
Program for World's Fair Anniversary Weekend, April 29–30, 1989: fifty years after the '39 fair, and twenty-five after the '64 fair.
Another photo from the New York Daily News. The caption incorrectly states that the Uniroyal Giant Tire appeared at the 1939 World's Fair: in fact, it was built for the second fair, in 1964.

Queens Museum World's Fair Association Newsletter

To take advantage of the heightened interest in the New York World's Fair anniversaries, the Queens Museum started the New York World's Fair Association. Along with Anne Edgar and, later, Connie Cullen, I edited the association newsletter. A great deal of work went into these multi-page publications, which featured original articles about the Fairs' history, profiles of Fair enthusiasts, listings of Fair-related activities (at the museum and elsewhere), and descriptions of items in the museum's growing World's Fair collection. Today, the six issues provide a vivid record of the excitement that surrounded the anniversaries.

World's Fair Newsletters
The six issues of the World's Fair Association newsletter
Queens Museum World's Fair Association newsletter: click individual thumbnail to read each full issue (PDF)

Something for Everyone

Displays from "Something for Everyone," left to right: Bell Systems' new touchtone, princess, and picture phone; original Tappan microwave oven; time capsule display; souvenirs featuring the World's Fair Twins.

I continued my involvement with the World's Fairs even after leaving the Queens Museum. Teaching a course on the history of world's fairs for New York University's graduate program in museum studies, I discovered just how richly these extravagant exhibitions reflected their particular moments, and how they related to the historical development of museums and other cultural institutions. I also did exhibitions for other New York institutions, including the New York Hall of Science, the 92nd Street Y, and, most notably, Flushing Town Hall.

When the "I ♥ NY" tourist campaign spotlighted the borough of Queens, Jo-Ann Jones, the director of Flushing Town Hall, got major funding for a thirtieth-anniversary exhibition on the 1964 World's Fair, and hired me as curator. I worked with historian and collector Peter M. Warner to assemble an amazing selection that included a rare original Tappan microwave, a small-scale version of Robert Indiana's "Eat," and other objects from more than forty lenders. Boym Design Studio handled the exhibition design. Sadly, Peter Warner died soon after the opening. The catalogue reproduced here is now an out-of-print collectible.

Peace through Understanding: The 1964–65 New York World's Fair

While working on "Something for Everyone," I met Curtis Cates and Terri Marlowe of BBQ Productions, who were developing a documentary on the 1964 World's Fair. Curtis and Terri helped me with videos for the Flushing Town Hall exhibition, while I loosely advised them and briefly appeared in the film. Diligently pursuing this project over many years, they interviewed many of those who had shaped the fair, including Congress on Racial Equality organizer James Farmer and architect Philip Johnson. A highlight of the film was their interview with Disney songwriters Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman, who performed their songs "It's A Small World (After All)" and "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" on camera. Unfortunately, the rights to this music proved prohibitively expensive; prolonged negotiations delayed the film's release, and limited its reach. After the film's eventual DVD release, in 2003, Curtis and Terri donated all their raw footage to the Queens Library.

Unisphere Segment from
Peace Through Understanding: The 1964-65
New York World's Fair

Produced and directed by Curtis Cates and Terri Marlowe
The Unisphere, built for the 1964 World's Fair.
The Unisphere, built for the 1964 fair.