A Smithsonian Institution curator whom I greatly admire once said that collecting objects for a museum is a bit like standing next to a river with a bucket. The curator’s task is to gather examples that explain what is important about something (in this analogy, a river), but the curator can only take what fits in the bucket. How do you capture the essence of something large and complex with a sample that is small enough to be preserved and displayed?
This was the task I faced when I received an e-mail from Carol Albert, the co-owner of the Astroland amusement park, a space-themed park founded in Coney Island in 1962 at the height of U.S. excitement about the first American human spaceflights. Because the park was closing, Albert wanted to preserve Astroland’s history. Her initial offer, however, to donate the park’s original 74-foot-long rocket ride proved to be entirely too large. So, in January 2009, I made a trip to Coney Island with Carol, scouting for a (more-bucket-sized) example.
The Astro tower, an observation ride and a notable part of Astroland’s skyline, was far too large. I took photographs of its signs but kept looking. The lighted top of a ticketbooth with handpainted signs captured the efforts of the many people who made Astroland work but I wondered about how the Museum would display a four-sided piece. The lighted sign at the Surf Avenue entrance offered real possibilities. But the entire sign stretched over 40-feet wide. What about one part, perhaps one of the spinning lighted stars?
One of the Astroland entranceway stars was the solution. The web address added to the bottom of the 1960s-era star illustrated Astroland in both the 1960s and the 2000s. This “small” piece, an 8-foot by 7-and-a-half-foot lighted star, illustrates the space theme. And, at the same time, the star presents a sample of Astroland’s bright lights and excitement. The thousands of people who had passed under the sign to take part in the park’s rides and games would recognize it.
So, in one 8-foot-high segment of a lighted sign, have I captured the essence of Astroland? (Do I have a river in my bucket?) Yes and no. No single piece can capture fully the many stories that make up Astroland’s importance. But the Astroland star symbolizes the space craze of the early 1960s and represents an important part of the history of Coney Island amusement parks.
Margaret Weitekamp is a curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.