March is Brain Awareness Month. Give your gray matter a treat at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Mass.
Until recently, the MIT Museum was one of Cambridge’s best kept secrets. “We didn’t even have a sign on the street,” recalls Beryl Rosenthal, director of exhibitions. “People would only come if they knew about it already. It was like visiting a speakeasy.”
How quickly things change. The MIT Museum is still a small, quirky place filled with hopping robots and dancing sculptures. But the oddball institution has gained a higher profile over the past 10 years, attracting a record number of visitors in 2006. And with an ambitious expansion planned in the next few months, the museum looks poised to make its biggest splash since opening in 1971.
John Durant, for one, is pleased. “We want to reach out,” says Durant, the museum director. “MIT has been part and parcel in the making of the modern world. We’re not an ivory tower institution. We’re an ideas and innovation factory.
“So even though people can’t just walk into a laboratory when they visit the campus, we want the public to be a part of this,” says Durant. “We want to give people a chance to encounter cutting-edge research, innovation and ideas. The museum is a window into the institution.”
By most standards, it’s a pretty unusual institution. One of the nation’s most prestigious research universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology also has a well-earned reputation for silliness.
In 1958, a group of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity brothers measured the Harvard Bridge in “Smoots” by rolling a freshman, one Oliver Smoot, head-over-heels across the length of bridge. (The bridge is officially 364.4 Smoots long, if you’re curious.) Since then, MIT students have balanced cars, airplanes and telephone booths on the top of 150-foot Great Dome on campus, hidden plastic gnomes throughout Cambridge and released a weather balloon reading “MIT” from the 50-yard line at the Harvard vs. Yale football game.
The prankster’s spirit shines through at the MIT Museum. You see it first in the “Robots and Beyond” exhibit, where the cutting edge of artificial intelligence meets the quirky reality of human intelligence. There you can encounter Kismet, the world’s first sociable robot, and START, an interactive computer program that answers all your questions. (Ask for the meaning of life, and you’ll just get “42.”) The exhibit also features tiny social robots that work like ants, robot arms that can really feel and a “Uniroo”—the first jumping robot ever modeled after a kangaroo.
Next stop is the museum’s impressive holography collection. These days you’re about as likely to find a Shrinky Dink in the National Gallery as a hologram in a serious art museum, but the collection does a first-rate job of showcasing the medium’s aesthetic potential. The exhibits range from the kitschy (a lady in a feathered hat blows passers-by a kiss) to the awe-inspiring (a telescope reveals planet Earth from the moon).
Archaeologists and students have used the hologram medium to study the Lindow Man, a 2,000-year-old body discovered in an English peat bog whose image is currently on display. All of the exhibits are intensely, uncannily hyperrealistic, featuring the kind of detail that would put Chuck Close to shame.
On to the museum’s most popular exhibitions: Arthur Ganson’s “Gestural Engineering,” or mechanical sculptures. Ganson’s interactive sculptures—made with wire, steel, concrete and chicken bone—are one part Rube Goldberg and one part Marcel Duchamp. One contraption—a tall, elegant machine—repeatedly douses itself in grease. Another features an ostrich feather rubbing scandalously against a violin.
Until September, the museum will also be featuring “Singular Beauty,” an exhibition of 127 antique microscopes. The microscopes, which date back to the 17th century, are made of ivory, brass, carved wood and even animal horn. The exhibit illustrates a bygone era when microscopes were aesthetic objects as well as research tools.
It’s hard to bridge the gap between 17th century optics and 21st century artificial intelligence. But that’s part of the MIT Museum’s charm. “We always have one foot in the past and one foot in the future,” says Durant. “It’s not like we’re running a museum of classical antiquity. Technology is always changing and the museum has to be able to change with it.”
And change it will. The museum is planning a major expansion that will double its exhibition space by the summer. New exhibits will focus on molecular genetics, engineering, design and oceanography. Jason 2, the robot that explored the Titanic, will be on permanent display, as will a prototype of the MIT Media Lab’s “car of the future”—a stackable, two-person buggy with engines in the wheels.
The MIT Museum has also played a major role in organizing the Cambridge Science Festival. The event, which will be held April 21-29, will be the first such festival to take place in the United States. The festival will bring together Harvard scientists, MIT researchers, local tech workers and students in a week-long celebration of all things scientific. Planners expect a “science circus,” featuring public debates, poetry readings and parades. And, of course, since MIT is involved, attendees should prepare themselves for some silliness: namely, a 20-mile long recreation of the human genome that will meander through the entire city.
“To be an engineer, to be a scientist, you have to be a little bit goofy,” explains Rosenthal. “These folks are seriously fun.”