A trip to MIT’s museum requires a bit of determination. From campus, walk northwest up Mass. Ave., across the railroad tracks and past Budget car rental, a pizza place, and a bike shop. Opposite a gas station and just shy of a bar, the entrance is easy to miss, tucked away on the second floor of a building you enter from a small side street. “The MIT Museum is a very well-kept secret,” says John Durant, the museum’s new director.
Even if Durant and his staff can find a way to get visitors in the door, they still face the daunting task of demystifying – and keeping pace with – science. Durant likens completed scientific research to a ship in a bottle. On hearing that scientists have created a machine only atoms wide or discovered a fat gene, he says, “Most people are scratching their heads: ‘How on earth – how on earth – did he or she do that?’” Durant believes the best way to give people a feel for science and technology is not to exhibit research that’s “done and dusted” but to showcase science in process – letting people watch as the ship is put into the bottle. But with new discoveries occurring and technologies emerging every week, staying current is next to impossible; traditional museums simply can’t keep up.
Fresh from serving as CEO of At-Bristol, a popular English science museum, the new director of MIT’s museum wants to transform it into a high-profile venue for cutting-edge MIT research. Durant has new ideas about how to create real-time exhibits of research in progress. Museum staff are collaborating with computer scientists and historians on a project to turn all of MIT into a digital museum. Durant is bringing MIT researchers into the museum for open-ended discussions of hot issues. And plans are in the works for an expansion and eventual move that will incorporate working lab space into the museum, so visitors will see research in action and possibly even lend a hand themselves.
Increasing the museum’s visibility is Durant’s first priority. “This is the worst location for a public museum I have ever seen,” he says. Because its building is so hard to find, Durant says, “the museum has not been a prominent location in campus life” or in the community, and he’d like to change that. By next summer, the MIT Museum will remodel and expand onto the ground floor of its building. “I hope we’ll have a completely different public profile. We shall open up a big, new, brightly lit window right the way round the ground floor on Mass. Ave.,” says Durant, so that “people will be able to see instantly that there’s a museum here.” The expansion will also create room for the presentation of smaller, fast-changing exhibits – and for a Wi-Fi-equipped café where Durant hopes students and visitors will hang out and study.
By 2011, Durant intends to move the museum into a larger, existing building closer to the center of campus. He plans to use the extra square footage to provide research space for MIT scientists. “If you’re really interested in decreasing the distance between your visitors and the research process,” he says, “why not give them the chance to come and see research going on or even roll their sleeves up and do something?” Although still finalizing the details of the move, Durant says the new location will serve as “a fantastic place of arrival and a gateway to the Institute for anybody and everybody.”
Durant is eager to create such a gateway because, as he points out, the Institute itself is so opaque. As a newcomer, he found the campus hard to navigate, with its bewildering system of building numbering and the scarcity of signs indicating what goes on in each building. Although it’s not always immediately apparent, “the place is so full of fascination,” he says. “And the more you know about where you are – what’s happened in the past and what’s going on today – the more interesting it is.”