Archivist Lynn Maliszewski on the World’s Fair and Inclusive Perspectives

Nov 30, 2021 3:30 pm

Q&A with Lynn Maliszewski, archives and collections manager at the Queens Museum, New York.

How long have you been with the Queens Museum?

I just started in August 2020. When I joined, there was not yet the potential for vaccination. It was tricky because with archives you have to be there in person. Plus, the position had been vacant for a while, so it was intense to have to dive in without an introduction. But, on the other hand, the museum being closed allowed me a bit of quiet time to familiarize myself with the content of the archive.

My background is not as an archivist, but rather as someone working in contemporary art. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to focus on the collection, which centers primarily on New York, with a physical location in the most diverse borough of the city, Queens. Our collection offers an opportunity to create connections and share with people the history of the city they live in. Now that the Covid-19 lockdown is past, there’s even greater urgency in considering how to make the archive more accessible and engaging.

Tell me about the “Ambitious Slogans and Colorful Promises” exhibition, which draws on the museum’s 1964–65 World’s Fair archival content.

The World’s Fair happened twice in this building and park, first in 1939–40 and again in 1964–65. That’s hard to truly convey in an exhibition, because it’s almost unfathomable what this place looked and felt like as well at the time—to say nothing of what it was projecting and sharing. The fair involved not only culture, high and low, but also new technologies and nations that people didn’t even know existed or that were just then forming.

We have a very expansive archive, but it has been viewed in a very particular way that I’m trying to upend. The fair was not just about rocket ships, IBM, and Belgian waffles. People talk about those things all the time, and some exciting stuff of that sort certainly did happen here. But some problematic things occurred, too.

The show looks specifically at the idea of the “future” and the different projections and kind of ideals that were put forth at the 1964–65 World’s Fair, both by major corporations and the various participating pavilions. We tackle a range of subjects, from the relationship between the American Dream and retirement plans to the importance of cars and how to drive on highways for extended periods to harnessing nuclear fission and understanding new household technologies.

We’re updating this exhibition monthly. For example, we just added photographs from the opening-day CORE protests in Brooklyn, which objected to the fair’s lack of acknowledgement of civil rights issues. Allowing different perspectives into this collection is crucial because a lot of archives get stuck in the past or in the voices of a few. I want this archive to appeal to as many as possible, from small children to immigrants to scholars alike.

What’s the most unexpected archival material you’ve seen?

I did not realize until working here what a presence religion had at the fair. In particular, there was a Christian missionary pavilion called 2,000 Tribes that issued a multitude of publications. I found one booklet, titled The Modern Man, which visualizes the gospel of John, detailing the entire story of Jesus from beginning to end, through intense black-and-white contemporary photography. A drama unfolds between the words and images that I find truly shocking. The temptation of Jesus is depicted as a scraggly, half-dressed man following a woman down a New York City street. I can only imagine someone looking at this and putting themselves into the story anew. At the time, photography was growing rapidly as a consumer medium. I can tell there was a deep understanding of the way images can both manipulate and be manipulated, and it’s just something that I never thought would have been there.

Another interesting object that we’re working on conserving is one of the cars from The Panorama of the City of New York, which Robert Moses commissioned for the 1964 fair. The panorama is a gigantic to-scale model of all five boroughs of New York City with narration by radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas. Visitors rode around the diorama in a car that looks like a forest green Swiss ski lift basket. Seeing objects like this makes me realize how mind-altering an experience the World’s Fair must have been.

“Ambitious Slogans and Colorful Promises: The 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair” is currently on view at the Queens Museum in New York, through January 30, 2022. To watch Maliszewski unbox ephemera from the archives for the show, visit the Queens Museum’s YouTube page.