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.”
To make what’s fascinating about MIT even more accessible, the museum is spearheading an interdisciplinary project to turn the whole campus into an exhibit. Led by curator of science and technology Deborah Douglas, the Collaborative Mapping Project will let users of handheld devices such as PDAs take tours and access information about MIT’s past and present based on where they are standing. A visitor to the Stata Center could find out what went on in the former buildings on its site – much of the radar used in World War II, for example, was developed in Building 20’s RadLab – as well as what’s happening today behind Noam Chomsky’s door.
The project will be “more than an acoustiguide on steroids,” says Douglas. Once its infrastructure is in place, the system will amount to a “living encyclopedia of the campus.” The Collaborative Mapping Project will allow anyone to add information, much like Wikipedia. Alumni could contribute memories about living on West Campus; facilities workers could view and update information about how many times a pipe has been repaired; the Disabilities Services Office could add information on wheelchair-friendly routes. “This is something like the Web, that can grow spontaneously in all directions,” Douglas explains. Information could also be tailored to specific users. An eight-year-old visitor interested in robots could access a different tour than a researcher on campus for an international artificial-intelligence conference. A prototype offering a simple campus tour will be finished by fall 2007; the entire system will be ready for MIT’s 150th anniversary in 2011. Douglas says the “museum without walls” will be “one of the best birthday gifts the Institute could give itself.”
Even as remodeling plans and the Collaborative Mapping Project get under way, Durant is thinking about how to use the museum’s existing space to do a better job of immersing the public in the scientific process. His goal is to document research “in real time, rather than only and always interpreting science and technology through the accomplishments of the past.” It’s a tall order, because typical large museum galleries take one to several years to plan, several years to fund, and several years more to build. In the meantime, their exhibits have often become outdated.
“In more radical places, like the Wellcome Wing at London’s Science Museum, people are designing exhibits that can literally grow and track an ongoing scientific or technological area by addition, rather like an animal growing new segments,” says Durant. Constantly updating an exhibit, however, is a labor–intensive process that he compares to putting out a maga-zine, with a team of curators constantly scouting for new information and “editing” the exhibit. The MIT Museum now has a small Emerging Technologies Gallery, where new MIT work is showcased for a few months at a time. The gallery, which recently displayed real-time maps of campus wireless usage, may expand when the museum is remodeled.
Eager to offer face-to-face encounters with scientists and turn the museum into a public forum, Durant has initiated Soap Box, a series of free evening programs bringing MIT scientists into the museum for salon-style conversations. Large, enthusiastic audiences have discussed the implications of genetic engineering with the Broad Institute’s David Altshuler and chatted with Rodney Brooks, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Each program begins with a “short and sharp” introduction by the featured professor, Durant says, but “the real emphasis is audience engagement.” Participants break into small groups for discussion; the program ends with a Q&A session. Soap Box videos posted online become fodder for an online chat. “We want to use it as a pebble to create as many ripples as possible,” says Durant.
“This place is a powerhouse of research with a focus on getting on with it,” he says. For Durant and his staff, there’s a real accomplishment in just keeping up.