March 3, 2021

Museum About Albert Einstein Proposed as a Tourism Draw

By Anne Levin

Does Princeton need an Albert Einstein museum?

The idea of creating a center dedicated to the famed physicist’s years in Princeton was posed at a recent meeting of the town’s Economic Development Committee. Elizabeth Romanaux, who grew up in Princeton, has worked for Liberty Science Center, and was president of the New Jersey Association of Museums, presented the early stages of a concept she has been considering for some time.

“As a museum professional, I think this is an enormous piece of ripe fruit hanging over everyone’s head that hasn’t been picked,” she said. “In the overall scheme of things, I think it would do very well.”

Romanaux, who is a friend of Mayor Mark Freda’s wife Beth, said she sent him a note a few weeks after he was sworn in this past January, asking why Princeton didn’t have a museum focused on Einstein, who was associated with the Institute for Advanced Study and lived in a house on Mercer Street until his death in 1955. “I told him I’ve always wondered about this, and he said, ‘Great, look into it.’ That was a month ago,” she said during an interview last week. “So I brought it to the Economic Development Committee meeting.”

There are no Einstein museums in the United States, Romanaux said. Two are located in Europe. Hebrew University in Israel owns the trademarks to his name. The Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) does have an extensive collection of Einstein memorabilia at its location at Updike Farm on Quaker Road.

“The audience I’m looking at are people walking around downtown,” Romanaux said. “They may or may not be people who would go out to Quaker Road. But this would be more about his science, even teaching some STEM, or some art. So it would be a different area from the Historical Society.”

In an email this week, HSP Executive Director Izzy Kasdin said, “Princeton is home to world-class Albert Einstein collections and stories — there are many sites in town that reflect Einstein’s life in Princeton and, of course, the Historical Society of Princeton preserves furniture from his home, personal belongings like his pipe and compass, oral histories from friends and colleagues, and intimate documents, including the only-known self-portrait of Albert Einstein. Anything that generates excitement about and steers people toward these unparalleled resources would be an asset to Princeton’s tourism infrastructure.”

Romanaux’s museum concept would emphasize creativity. “How can we think broadly, and do experiments with issues we have, and come up with solutions? Einstein was a scientist who used what he called ‘thought experiments’ to come up with similes about how things might work. I think all of us could use the scientific method and creativity to approach things differently,” she said.

The proposed museum could start out at empty storefronts in town before considering a permanent site. “The initial discussion was perhaps we could do a ‘vest pocket’ museum in the short term, and maybe move when these storefronts get filled up,” Romanaux said. “For the long term, I don’t know. I’m being encouraged to think larger scale. This is at least a three-to-five-year time frame if we did a big one.”

Encouraging tourism would be a major focus. “I’m thinking of the people with the strollers and the kids and the ice cream cones. This could keep them here longer,” Romanaux said at the meeting. Speaking the following week, she said, “I think we could use a museum downtown. We want people to stay longer, to eat and shop. The [Princeton University] art museum is closed [for renovations]. Landau’s, which had an Einstein section in the back, has closed.”

This week, Mimi Omiecinski of Princeton Tour Company said Romanaux had approached her about the concept. “Elizabeth was kind enough to ask me for feedback, and I am impressed she included a visitor center component in her presentation as a result,” she said. “Pre-COVID, Princeton hosted 1.8 million visitors a year with no centralized information center to direct that interest. Tourism data gathered prior to COVID is suspected to be irrelevant for current and future planning. Gathering local data regarding who is visiting Princeton and what potential experiences would be desirable could be a game changer in helping the town prioritize creative suggestions like Elizabeth’s.”

The next step in exploring the idea would be a letter to the Hebrew University to see if they would give permission to use Einstein’s name. Just how a museum would be financed is not yet clear. “It’s still early days for that,” Romanaux said. “But I think it is very fundable from a fundraising point of view. I think we’ll be able to raise the money.”

Freda said the concept is worth exploring. “I think the idea of an Einstein Museum in Princeton is a natural fit,” he said. “And ideas that help further develop reasons to come visit and shop or eat in Princeton benefit the town on many levels. This is in the very initial stages, so there is a lot of work to be done to make this happen; but hopefully a group can be put together to move this forward. And thank you to Elizabeth for pushing this idea.”