Nick Dalacu, museum founder, shows University at Buffalo professors Reinhard Reitzenstein, left, and Gary Nickard how an induction coil can be used to power a crooks tube in the electrical display room.

Charles Lewis/Buffalo News

05/14/09 07:46 AM

Niagara Science Museum overflows with collectibles

By Tom Buckham


NIAGARA FALLS — Entering the new Niagara Science Museum, opening today, you can’t help noticing the heavy charcoal-black object sitting on the floor to the left. It resembles a round patio table, but forget sitting down to tea. The object may actually be the largest chunk of extruded graphite in existence, remarked exhibit designer and sculptor Reinhard Reitzenstein. Merely touching it will leave carbon dust on your fingers.

This peculiar artifact is a nod to Niagara Falls’ days as an industrial and research powerhouse, when the two-story, 6,000-square-foot brick building at 3625 Highland Ave. near College Avenue was headquarters of National Carbon Co., which begat Union Carbide. As recently as the mid-20th century, graphite was extracted from an Everest of coke piled stories high on five acres behind the offices.

But there is more to see in this museum, which will showcase an astounding array of scientific materials that founder Nick Dalacu began collecting when he was a student in Bucharest a half-century ago.

Much, much more. There are telescopes, microscopes, gyroscopes, stethoscopes. Mineral rocks, barometers, thermometers,

spectrometers. Electrostatic machines, vacuum pumps, coils and capacitors. Slide rules, a primitive printing press and type fonts. Telegraph key pads, telephones, sextants and so on.

In other words, every gadget, gizmo and doodad your granddad could have imagined — several thousand antique artifacts in all, many of which may stay out of sight upstairs until the museum grows into that space.

“Collecting has been my lifelong obsession,” said Dalacu, stating the obvious. The 67- year-old physicist bought the 5- acre parcel at auction in 2003 and has long dreamed making his holdings available to the public.

Dalacu (pronounced Dalakoo), owns Canrom Photovoltaics, a research company locating in a neighboring building. It is developing thin-film solar panels he believes will have cutting- edge applications in the suddenly burgeoning field of green technology.

He thinks delegates to this week’s Solar 2009 National Conference in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center might profit from visiting the museum, which will be completely powered by a rooftop bank of Canrom panels generating up to 600 watts of electricity.

The museum interior was organized by Reitzenstein and Gary Nickard, University at Buffalo visual arts professors and artists, in the style of the wunderkammern, or wonder rooms, of Renaissance Europe. Those predecessors of the modern museum contained encyclopedic collections of scientific or artistic materials commonly grouped by room or in “cabinets of curiosity”.

In an era when most museums believe that interactivity — allowing visitors to touch and manipulate objects — is essential to the museum experience, Reitzenstein and Nickard believe otherwise.

Their goal at the Niagara Science Museum, Reitzenstein said, is to present the artifacts in a “not too clinical” way that blends science and art.

Groupings include a radio room, a biological room, printing room and other former offices enclosed by glass partitions, as well as free-standing, glass-covered display cases. Simply gazing into these crowded spaces should evoke the same “sense of awe and discovery” that the wunderkammern inspired centuries ago, Reitzenstein, who directs UB’s sculpture program, believes.

The museum will open to the public at 11 a. m. Admission will be free for the time being, though “if somebody wants to donate a nice object, that’s fine,” said Dalacu, ever the collector.