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New York Hall of Science is happy to be open again

Everyone experiences happiness differently — or do we?

“The Happiness Experiment,” a multidisciplinary exhibit on view now at the New York Hall of Science in Corona, Queens invites museum goers to explore the neuroscience underlying emotional responses. Visitors can experience how color and sound can impact state of mind, get their endorphins flowing by sprinting and dancing, and lounge on hay bales or in bean-bag chairs, with plants suspended overhead — an urban take on “forest bathing.”

A more fitting exhibition would be hard to envision right now, because the Hall of Science finally has plenty to be happy about. On Saturday, the family-oriented center devoted to scientific and technological discovery reopened its doors to the public, after two years of near-continual closure. The museum first shut down in March 2020 due to the pandemic, and then reopened in July 2021 for only 7 weeks before suffering significant damage from the remnants of Hurricane Ida in September.

The popular institution, whose Rocket Park is visible for miles around, has been a fixture in the lives of countless borough and city residents since it originally opened as a part of the 1964 World Fair. When the coronavirus pandemic forced the Hall to close, its educational programs continued online and it helped to establish a neighborhood outreach program that fostered pandemic recovery and food security. But leadership also seized the opportunity to make numerous long-needed upgrades

“What we decided to do was all the work that’s really challenging to do when your building is full of families and children and thousands of people,” said Margaret Honey, the New York Hall of Science president and C.E.O., in a recent interview conducted on Zoom. She ticked off a list of much-needed facility refreshments: upgraded restrooms, touchless water fountains, new carpet, fresh paint. “And then our fabulous exhibitions team turned to working on new exhibits,” she said.

Foremost among these was “The Happiness Experiment,” which, when it initially opened last July, already yielded new dimensions for visitors who’d learned firsthand the role happiness can play in resilience and endurance. For many, Honey noted, one especially popular feature in the hands-on, experiential show is a giant paper shredder.

“It’s very cathartic,” Honey explained. “The invitation is, you can share a happy memory or a memory you want to get rid of. Happy memories you can hang on the wall, and the ones you really want to get rid of, you can shred.” Inside the machine’s glass encasement, a pile of paper scraps attested to its utility.

Attendance last summer, Honey said, hovered at around 40% of what the Hall had seen in 2019 – “the last normal year,” she noted. But what no one could have foreseen was the devastation the facility would endure when the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through parts of the city on September 1st, 2021.

The original 1964 structure, underneath the distinctive curvilinear Great Hall, was hit especially hard. Water pooled up in a below-grade area in the back of the building that had been used for loading materials in and out, and forced its way through an entrance to the machine and fabrication shops.

Upstairs, rushing waters at the main entrance burst through pane-glass doors and windows that had been reinforced with flood barriers. “We have a video that shows the water breaking through the glass and breaking through the door jamb, and flying into the building,” Honey said. “That water went into the rotunda. It did a lot of damage in the café area, and then it flowed onto the mezzanine area and went about halfway around.”

Pooled with no escape, the water damaged the ceilings of classrooms and offices below it. When Honey inspected the damage after the storm, she recalled, she saw that rushing water had ripped up carpeting, and toppled heavy refrigerators.

“It looked like a tsunami had hit,” she said.

During a visit to the museum on Sunday, the most evident sign that any calamity had occurred was a curtained-off lower-level space usually occupied by workshops, demonstrations and interactive displays. (A gap in the curtains provided a view of bare concrete floors and stacked containers.) Some of these features were moved up to mezzanine-level corridors and galleries, where on Sunday children (my daughter included) sewed handbags from piles of scrap fabric, or constructed miniature rescue vehicles to traverse jungle ziplines.

Elsewhere, “Connected Worlds,” the Hall’s popular interactive video environment, invited ebullient youngsters to lend a helping hand across several simulated ecosystems, and budding explorers patiently awaited a chance to activate a Mars Rover by sending signals from a nearby computer. The Hall’s 3-D movie theater was in operation, as well. High above, “Finding the Window,” an artful stretched-glass constellation by Romina Gonzales, captured and refracted sunlight.

You mostly could get a sense that everything was back to normal. Honey confirmed that much remains to be done, but said the Hall’s benefactors had expedited necessary repairs. “We’ve been really fortunate that a number of foundations and individuals have stepped up to the plate to help us put together a fund that we can use to get back on our feet,” she said. Restoration on outdoor amenities like the Rocket Park and Science Playground continues alongside construction of a handsome new STEAM-focused UPK school facility, scheduled to open on the museum campus in September.

Advance planning on attractions has been adjusted to reflect new realities as well, as in “City Works,” an exhibition about city infrastructure that’s still in development. Honey cited an essay by conservation ecologist Eric W. Sanderson, “Let Water Go Where It Wants to Go,” published by The New York Times last September in the wake of Ida’s destruction.

“His argument is that we need to think differently about the natural ecosystems we’ve paved over,” Honey said, “because they are in fact preventative resources for severe climate events like the ones we’ve been experiencing.”

She linked that idea to the planned exhibit. “We’re leaning much more heavily into exploring and investigating issues of resilience,” Honey said. “It’s sort of exactly what Eric was saying: How do you transform aging city infrastructure in a way that makes not just a spot, but a neighborhood, a borough, a community a much more climate-resilient habitat? We’re still in an early stage doing work on the exhibit, but I think that will become an important voice in this context.”

The point of such an undertaking, she emphasized, is not to frighten Hall visitors with gloomy scenarios of climate dysfunction, but rather to help individuals of all ages feel empowered to help implement change themselves: “We’re a place that works really hard to give kids an experience of their own agency: I can do this, I can make a difference.”

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