A Piece of Coney Island Comes to the Smithsonian

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One of the two 8-foot-high spinning stars that once graced the entrance of the now-closed Astroland amusement park at Coney Island is now residing at its new home, the National Air and Space Museum, but it won't be on view for another two years. I spoke with Margaret Weitekamp, curator in the museum’s space history division, about the acquisition.

How did this donation come to be? Did the Astroland owners approach you?

Carol Albert, who is co-owner of Astroland with her husband, realized that the park was going to be closing and was not going to be able to reopen this summer. So she contacted the Air and Space museum because when her father-in-law founded the park in 1962, he founded it with a space theme because he was very enthusiastic about all of the American space achievements that were happening at the time: John Glenn’s orbital flight, the first American human space flights and satellites. She saw the Air and Space museum as a place that might be able to take some part of the park and preserve it, and in doing so preserve that connection with space exploration.

What does the star add to the Air and Space popular culture collection?

One of the things we are trying to do is to preserve the material culture not only of actual space exploration but also of all the reactions to space exploration. Astroland amusement park was an expression of that outpouring, that space craze of the early 1960s, when people were really following space flights individually. They knew the names of the astronauts. They were very excited and watched the launches on television and really followed in the news the results. Something like the Astroland amusement park is one example of the ways that people reacted and participated in that enthusiasm for human space flight. The real challenge was coming up with one piece that allows us to tell that story.

Had they considered donating other pieces?

Yes. Actually, the initial offer from Carol Albert was for the original ride. She was hoping that we would be able to take the 74-foot rocket ride, which was the first piece that had been put into the amusement park when it was founded. It was actually 71-feet long, about 2,100 pounds. That was impossible for us. Far too big, and if the Smithsonian did take it, it would go into storage, and that doesn’t do justice to what we are trying to do when we select those kinds of things. We want to be able to put them out for people to see, and we want the donors also to know that it’s being taken care of in that way. They are giving it to the Smithsonian so that people see and continue to enjoy it.

I actually made a trip in January of this year to go visit the park. Carol took me around as they were packing up the rides, and we went through, measured and looked at things. I looked at a lot of different signs, and the one that really makes the biggest impact is a huge sign that was on the Surf Avenue entrance of the park. I thought the star with all of its lights embodies the space theme and also tells you a little about the amusement park—the lights, excitement, people and the sense of being on the Coney Island boardwalk, with all the rides, sounds and smells.

Will it be lit?

We are still working that out. We have a space picked out in the Udvar-Hazy Center out by Dulles airport in the space hangar. It will be another two years before it goes on display because the space hangar is adjacent to the Phase II of construction that the museum is doing and there will be a cut made in that wall right above where I want to put the star. So I’m not going to put an object on display and then allow it to be in part of a construction site. The plan is to put it on the top of a pole so that people get some sense of how it looked up in the air and then also to include with it a picture of the full sign so that people get some idea of how large that was.

What items will it join in the popular culture collection?

The popular culture collection is a substantial collection at the museum. There are over 4,000 individual pieces. It is popular culture memorabilia from actual space exploration. Then we also have a substantial space science fiction collection—things from Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Star Trek, Star Wars up through Babylon 5. So we have a nice collection of the imagining of what space flight could be.

What do you hope museum visitors take away from seeing the star?

I hope they start thinking about the Space Age in a new way, as not just a narrow technological race but also something that the whole country embraced at the moment. I hope that it gives people a little bit of a connection to that time in the early 1960s when people were very enthusiastic about human space flight and when they really wanted to participate in that.

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