It’s not surprising there is a museum dedicated to Albert Einstein in Princeton. This is the town where he lived the last 22 years of his life and where he died in 1955. It’s also not surprising that the museum is small. He specified in his will that he did not want his house at 112 Mercer Street to be turned into a shrine.
But it is a little surprising that the Einstein museum — let’s call it a mini-museum — is located in the back of a retail clothing store, specifically Laudau’s at 102 Nassau Street.
All of that, however, is not the news this week about the Einstein mini-museum. The news is that a real museum, an Einstein discovery center inspired and informed to a certain degree by the mini-museum on Nassau Street, is now being planned in Ulm, Germany, the town in which Einstein was born in 1879. The Albert Einstein Discovery Center will hold its first public event next Wednesday, March 14, Einstein’s birthday, in Ulm.
And the discovery center is receiving financial support from Landau. Starting this weekend — when Princeton be celebrating the coincidence that Einstein’s birthday, 3-14, represents the first three digits of the mathematical constant known as pi — Landau will sell T-shirts decorated with the logo of the new discovery center. The full $20 sale price of each T-shirt will be donated to the center in Ulm.
So how did all the come about? In a word, serendipity. Several instances of serendipity, in fact.
Back in 1994 the movie “IQ,” starring Walter Matthau as Einstein, was filmed in Princeton. Some of the Einstein memorabilia collected for that movie was given to Landau’s store, for an exhibit that was intended to be just a temporary window display. Other people in town, including Gillett Griffin, a professor who had been a friend of Einstein, contributed additional items.
A few years later several people in town decided to do something about a fact that many people in town had recognized over the years: Despite the fact that Einstein was arguably the most well known person to have ever lived in Princeton (Time magazine would name him person of the century in its December 31, 1999, issue), there was no physical tribute to the man. The Historical Society had a collection of about 65 pieces of furniture and other artifacts, donated by the Institute for Advanced Study, his house had been sold, and re-sold, to professors at the institute. And there was the display at Landau’s.
Fund raising began to commission a bust of Einstein, to be installed at some prominent spot.
The effort, led by Temple professor and Princeton resident Mel Benarde and others, got a surprise: In 1953 Einstein had posed for prominent portrait sculptor Robert Berks. Later he created a 24-foot Einstein Centennial Monument at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. (for a fee of $350,000 plus more than $650,000 in expenses), and a second, smaller bronze cast for an Einstein exhibit at the American Museum of National History. The surprise was that Berks was willing to donate a new bust of the great physicist to the town of Princeton. All the town needed was money for a structure on which the sculpture could rest.
To help publicize the effort Landau placed several maquettes or models of the proposed sculpture in his store window. More serendipity: Rita Levy, the wife of a Princeton alumnus from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, happened to walk by Landau’s during Reunions. She noticed the maquettes of Einstein and told her husband, Dr. Stanley Levy, Class of 1947.
Stan Levy had more than a passing interest in Einstein. In the spring of 1944, while Levy was studying at Princeton as part of a pre-med officers training program, a Jewish community group invited the handful of Jewish students at the university to a Passover meal. Levy sat next to Albert Einstein.
“That meal was almost a religious experience,” Levy told a reporter many years later. Levy eventually became a prominent internist in the Detroit suburbs, where he still lives today at age 91, and throughout his life has collected materials related to Einstein. When he heard about the effort in Princeton to create a sculpture in Einstein’s memory, he underwrote the project, paying for the base and plaza beneath the Berks sculpture, which stands in Monument Park, near the old Borough Hall. He also paid for Benarde’s daughter, Dana Lichstrahl, to curate the memorabilia in Landau’s store.
The Einstein sculpture was dedicated in 2005, the 100th anniversary of the paper on the theory of special relativity and the 50th anniversary of his death. Fast forward to 2016. More serendipity. A professor in quantum optics and director of the Institute for Quantum Matter at the University of Ulm came to Princeton for a conference. He had seen a reference on a map to an “Einstein Museum.” He found it in the back of Landau’s store.
He mentioned it to his wife, Nancy Hecker-Denschlag, who was active in a group that was just beginning to plan the Einstein discovery center in Ulm. Last year Hecker-Denschlag came to Princeton for a conference. She too stopped at Landau’s store and lingered in the Einstein section. Noting her intense interest, a sales clerk introduced her to Robert Landau, who owns the store with his brother Henry. When he heard about her project, he took to a back room and let her browse for hours through additional memorabilia — material that’s not suitable for wall display.
She found, for example, a program of an Einstein exhibit at the Natural History Museum, and a list of the participants — more leads for Hecker-Denschlag to pursue. And then she came across a letter from the Levys in Michigan and noted the return address. More serendipity: Stan Levy lives in Bloomfield Hills, the same town in which her parents live.
Hecker-Denschlag visited with Levy in Michigan. “His stories on his meetings with Albert Einstein are fascinating,” she says, “and inspire me to work harder to make our Discovery Center a reality.”
About that museum in Germany: The organizers note that, while Einstein is Ulm’s most famous citizen, the town is also “a dynamic and creative scientific hub” with innovative industries. The University of Ulm boasts an internationally recognized quantum physics institute. The organizers hope to have the center built by the year 2024 on a site near Einstein’s birth house (which was destroyed during the bombings of World War II), centrally located near Ulm’s main train station and on the train route between Stuttgart and Munich.
The Ulm center has a “three-in-one” concept. It will include a historical guide to Einstein’s life, his family background, and the city of Ulm in 1879; a modern technology showcase exhibiting “Einstein’s research and theories and how they are incorporated into our modern lives; and a science center with hands-on experimental physics exhibits that invite personal interaction by all ages.”
The discovery center in Ulm aims to “awaken curiosity for physical phenomena” and present information on such topics as “Quantum Physics Made Simple.” On topics like that the mini-museum on Nassau Street will be happy to complement — but not compete with — the new discovery center. The Landaus, who studied business and marketing in college and earned Ph.D.s at the school of hard knocks in retail, might defer to Nancy Hecker-Denschlag, who earned her Ph.D. in physics at Harvard.