A guided tour of the new MIT Museum
Digital director David Nuñez, SM ’15, offers an insider’s perspective.
When the MIT Museum opened its new 56,000-square-foot space in Kendall Square last October, it was a time of public celebration. It was also a private point of pride for David Nuñez, SM ’15, who helped guide the museum’s transformation as its director of technology and digital strategy.
Nuñez joined the museum in 2017, about a year before the groundbreaking for the new building, and says he had his work cut out for him. “The museum didn’t have a way to sell tickets online. It didn’t have a great online collections search,” he says. “There were a lot of significant ways that I felt the museum could level up.”
Today, it has reimagined the online experience for visitors, who can now browse through more than 156,000 items from the museum’s collection and, yes, buy tickets. It’s also unveiled numerous in-gallery digital activities, ranging from listening to personal reflections on the Black experience at MIT to writing poetry with the help of artificial intelligence.
“There are over 80 different digital pieces, and many of them are interactive in some way,” Nuñez says. “It was important to us to create a hackable museum you could put your hands into and use.”
Now visitors can not only explore physical artifacts from the Institute’s long history of research and innovation but also gain insight into the MIT community—including generations of MIT alumni—through video and audio recordings featuring Institute innovators. “We want to give people a sense of the human thread through all the technology and invention,” Nuñez says.
The MIT Museum was founded in 1971 to preserve the Institute’s historical artifacts, and today its mission is to make MIT’s research accessible to everyone; the new digital platforms are therefore designed to enable even more visitors to join in the MIT experience. For example, online visitors can weigh in on questions such as “What does it mean for something to be well-engineered?” And in-person visitors can create personal avatars that appear on the huge media wall on the first floor, in an installation called The Window.
“This is an experience we created as a welcome and an insight into the MIT community,” Nuñez says, explaining that participants answer a few questions, and the generated data determines what each avatar looks like on the big screen. “It’s a representation of you, but in the community of these avatars on the wall. It’s saying you can participate at MIT. Welcome!”
What do many of the exhibits have in common? Alumni, who of course have been creating and shaping the Institute since its earliest days. Here, Nuñez shares his insights on some notable alumni-
One of the world’s first large-scale, high-speed digital computers, MIT’s Whirlwind was created in the early 1950s under the direction of Jay W. Forrester, SM ’45, a professor at MIT Sloan.
Among other Whirlwind-related objects, the museum prominently displays one 4K core memory unit. “It’s a big machine, standing taller than I am,” Nuñez says, yet today’s cell phones typically have roughly a million times more memory. “To stand next to this object is to realize that human hands had to tie all those wires. Humans were involved in all these inventions.”
Developed by Professor Emeritus Rainer Weiss ’55, PhD ’62, and his students, this 1970s prototype led to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), a large-scale physics experiment that was ultimately able to detect the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The work earned Weiss the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.
“The experiments that LIGO was able to facilitate feel like magic to me, as a non-physicist,” Nuñez says. “Can you imagine what it was like to be there when they found out it worked? What an amazing moment for humanity!”
One of first social robots designed to simulate social interactions, Kismet was created in the 1990s by Cynthia Breazeal, SM ’93, ScD ’00, who is now MIT’s dean for digital learning and head of the Personal Robots Research Group at the MIT Media Lab. Originally controlled by 15 different computers, Kismet employed 21 motors to create facial expressions and body postures.
“I have a lot of affinity for that particular artifact,” says Nuñez, who studied with Breazeal at the Media Lab. “It’s such a charismatic object; it’s one of the museum’s Instagram moments.”
Developed by Julie Shah ’04, SM ’06, PhD ’11, IRGO is an interactive robot that museum visitors can help to train through artificial-intelligence demonstrations. “Our visitors are participating in real robotics research,” Nuñez says. “That is such a rare and special opportunity.”
Today Shah is the H.N. Slater Professor in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and head of the Interactive Robotics Group within the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She shares her thoughts on AI in a nearby audio gallery. Other alumni featured in that gallery include Professor Rosalind Picard, SM ’86, ScD ’91, director of the Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group, and Media Lab PhD students Matt Groh, SM ’19, and Pat Pataranutaporn, SM ’20.
“We want to be able to expose the fact that there are communities of people behind everything you’re seeing,” Nuñez says.
Visitors to the AI gallery can see the mask used by Joy Buolamwini, SM ’17, PhD ’22, to present a white face—rather than her own Black one—to facial recognition software, which she found was less accurate for people with dark skin. In her doctoral thesis, Buolamwini coined the term “coded gaze” to describe algorithmic bias.
“You’d assume this gallery would be all about the technology and how it works, but the point here is to get people to think about the social implications of the kind of innovation that’s happening on campus,” Nuñez says. “If our visitors can come away with lots of questions, we’ll have done our job.”
Minecraft Institute of Technology
When MIT students were sent home at the beginning of the covid pandemic in 2020, Jeffery Yu ’22 launched a project to build a replica of MIT in the video-game platform Minecraft, and students collaborated on it from around the world. A video tour of the highly detailed “Minecraft Institute of Technology” that resulted is on view at the museum. “They re-created MIT from their lived experience of this special place,” Nuñez says. “It’s such a beautiful representation. You get this sense of whimsy and play—this special MIT feeling comes through.”
Alums can visit the new museum—and bring a guest—for free using the MIT ID for alumni.
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