By Steve Kelman

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Public service on display at the Griffith Observatory

With our summer break coming to an end and the new term beginning on Thursday, I had a great transition back to the world of my students when I visited the Griffith Observatory, in Los Angeles, with a former student of mine from almost 25 years ago, Mark Pine, now deputy director of the Observatory and a career public servant.

Mark went into the Presidential Management Internship program at NASA right out of the Kennedy School, pursuing his childhood interest in space (his first Boy Scout merit badge was in astronomy). He worked at NASA for over a decade, starting as a policy analyst for the space shuttle program and finishing in the Mission to Planet Earth program, and then came to California to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. From there he became deputy director of the nonprofit that was raising money and doing other things to help renovate the city-owned Griffith Observatory, and when the Observatory reopened in 2006, he became its deputy director. His career has been unified by a love of space and space exploration.

The Griffith Observatory may be most famous outside L.A. as the location for the knife-fight scene in James Dean's last, iconic movie, “Rebel without a Cause.” (Am I dating myself? Do younger blog readers know about this movie? Actually, James Dean is even just a bit before my time.)

It is located in Griffith Park, which looked nothing like I expected. Rather than the flattish glens, paths or gardens of a typical park, Griffith Park is basically a bunch of craggy hills and gullies in the north of the city, where walking around would more be an exercise for an extreme hiker than for a middle-aged person interested in a promenade. Walking in Griffith Park would be no walk in the park, in other words. But the park, with its browns and sage greens, looks magnificent, and at its highest point the Observatory has an absolutely spectacular view of the city below and the famous Hollywood sign on a hill just outside the park boundaries to the northwest. There is also a James Dean statue.

Mark was brimming with enthusiasm as he showed off the renovated observatory. In the Internet age, museum visitors no longer want or need the kind of encyclopedic descriptions of everything that marks older museums. Instead, the idea of the new museum is to provide visual experiences people can't easily get online, and to put them into a context to encourage further learning and exploration. Mark mentioned that the Observatory, rather than doing a scattershot welcoming for random school groups, had decided to specialize on fifth grade, giving as many Los Angeles fifth graders as possible a chance to learn something about space and visit the museum. That way, they could adapt their school program to specialize in the interests and needs of that age group. Both interesting examples of museum innovation!

Mark is proud to be a public servant, and he is proud that the Observatory was a Los Angeles government institution, oriented towards as wide a group of the public as possible. He noted that the Observatory had been named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the best "cheap dates" in the city. There had been some problems with gang violence in the park while the Observatory had been closed for renovations, but with the crowds returning, that was pretty much now gone.

I drove away from the Observatory towards West Los Angeles to see an exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art. The drive took me through the immigrant kaleidoscope that is Los Angeles -- with signs in Korean having spread from Koreatown further west on Wilshire Boulevard and north up Vermont Avenue on the route from the Observatory -- and that special L.A. institution, the mini-strip mall filled with an unbelievable mix of ethnic foods. I had dinner at a Mexican place in downtown Hollywood recommended by the London Financial Times (!!). I also saw that downtown Hollywood is now coming back from its seediness of the last few decades, with a Disney Store and a Louis Vuitton outlet bringing some respectability to an area still dotted with tattoo parlors and sex-toy shops.

As I think of my new students coming in as first-year master's students this week, I say to myself they could do worse, 25 years after school, to have experienced the career -- and the public service -- Mark Pine has experienced.

Posted on Aug 31, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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