Van Romans: A sense of the imagination

Fort Worth Museum of Science and History

Celebrating 10 years at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Van Romans has overseen the fulfillment of many of his dreams: a new building, innovative programs and a continued commitment to education.

But the president of the museum says he’s not finished dreaming as the museum prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary next year.

“We have the responsibility to keep up,” Romans said. “If we don’t use [new] technology we will be left behind … It is moving so quickly we need to be a part of that movement and not leave our mission at all, [but] to make sure our mission embraces the future.”

Education, a key component of the museum’s mission and Romans’ biggest passion, will see some changes. His next five-year goal is to change the way the museum integrates new technology. “We are rethinking how technology can apply to learning,” he said.

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Plans for the museum’s future include reimagining the IMAX Theater and taking the planetarium to another level, allowing visitors to enjoy the sensation of traveling to other planets.

In other words, Romans said, expect to see big changes in the next six to nine months.

But even as it soars into the future the museum’s key mission will remain intact, and Romans plans to remind everyone of its origins as the brainchild of some local women educators who studied children’s museums in the late 1930s and early ’40s with an eye toward starting one in Fort Worth. And start one they did, on May 21, 1941.

The museum’s mission statement encapsules its goals: “Dedicated to lifelong learning and anchored by our rich collections, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History engages our diverse community through creative, vibrant programs and exhibits interpreting science and the stories of Texas and the Southwest.”

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Many locals have vivid memories of museum school, which gave parents a much-needed break while at the same time igniting the imagination and dreams of its students.

Romans’ own dreaming began early. His mother, a teacher and art lover, always had crafts around the house and encouraged her son to experiment. He has always had a mind that absorbed more information from world experiences than from textbooks, and as a child he would draw made-up worlds created from his imagination.

Which is probably why one of Romans’ favorite quotes comes from Albert Einstein: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Romans received his masters of fine arts degree in environmental sculpture from the University of California. His dissertation allowed him to study with architects, engineers and artists to creatively design spaces to walk through.

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“This helped me understand spatial relationships and led to environmental sculpture, which in turn led to a visual literacy of space and how that mattered in people’s lives,” Romans said.

While pursuing his studies, he was selected as one of the five most promising young creative students in California.

He later started teaching and taught exhibition design and museum management at Orange Coast College for 30 years before moving to Fort Worth in 2004 to run the Museum of Science and History. Teaching has always been in his blood. Not only was his mother a teacher but so were his father and grandmother; his grandfather was a superintendent of schools in Colorado. Romans’ wife Margy is a teacher as well.

“It is in my DNA, which is why the museum is a perfect place for me to help children learn,” Romans said.

It wasn’t long after he started teaching that Romans also began climbing the ranks at Walt Disney Co., eventually becoming the vice president for cultural affairs at Walt Disney Imagineering. His path began when he was asked to design a small shoe store in California while teaching summer school. People noticed the imaginative design and his name eventually was passed on to Disney. Soon he was designing theme parks and gallery exhibitions all over the country.

Romans’ imagination and creative spirit have proved their worth to the museum, officials said.

“He just sees things in a different way than most people do,” said Lynny Sankary, executive trustee and a museum board member for 15 years. “His energy and vision are amazing.”

At 71 years of age, Romans has retained the awe and childlike wonder about the world that fueled his creative instincts as a child.

“He is just a special person. He is so warm and has a big heart. His enthusiasm is amazing and you see that in everything he does,” Sankary said.

Sankary has worked on many boards but says she loves working with Romans because of his warmth and appreciation for every little thing she does. Sankary said Romans never takes credit, always passing it along to his team.

Romans’ office reflects his commitment to the team spirit at the museum. An interior wall made of transparent glass looks out onto his team. Another wall is a bookshelf filled with inspirational favorites such as Lincoln on Leadership, and a massive window looks out onto a wall of hearty agave reaching toward the Texas sky.

On a counter are framed and signed photos and books by people with whom Romans has designed exhibitions over the years: author Ray Bradbury, photographer Ansel Adams, magician David Copperfield and silver screen cowboy/businessman Gene Autry. Nestled among the mementos is a small, framed card bearing a quotation: “Those that say it cannot be done should not interrupt the people doing it.”

The words reflect Romans’ approach to reinventing the museum. Foot traffic for the museum was floundering, and the original building was small and outdated – at least for Romans’ big ideas. Many in Fort Worth with emotional ties to the old building wanted to remodel it. Romans had a more revolutionary plan: rebuild.

Romans found Ricardo Legorreta at Legorreta + Legorreta in Mexico City to be delightful, humble and a genius. All Romans had to do was let a parade of architects come in and present their ideas to the museum board. Romans had faith Legorreta would get the job.

He did, and the result was a 166,000-square-foot multicolored building with light spilling into the galleries. It opened to the public on Nov. 20, 2009.

Since then, foot traffic has increased to almost 1 million visitors a year. That’s up from roughly 300,000 in the old building. The success of the new building was no surprise to Romans’ many supporters.

“He’s connected to so many people in the museum world that he always knows who to contact for whatever we need,” said Sankary. “He has brought that to us. He has brought people to the museum that we would otherwise never be able to get. I would say that is probably one of the many things that makes it so special to have him as head of the museum.”

Pushing for construction of the building was typical of Romans’ philosophy. Bradbury dedicated a book, Yestermorrow, to Romans, a “plebe” at the time and a member of a small group at Walt Disney Imagineering. They created an exhibit together called “How to Jump Start A Mouse.” Before the author died, Romans asked if he could borrow Bradbury’s Yestermorrow phrase for the Fort Worth museum’s campaign theme, which was “Yesterday is tomorrow’s place.”

“We are sandwiched between those two things [yesterday and tomorrow],” said Romans, “and it is our responsibility to carry it on.”

To contact the reporter on this story: 817-336-8300