A quirky fete to great ideas

By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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For 150 years the faculty, students, and alumni of MIT have shaped the world in which we live, endowing us with everything from modern computing to artificial intelligence to the “Smoot.’’ The constant stream of innovations flowing from the university has earned it a reputation as an “idea factory,’’ which makes a trip to the campus museum akin to a behind-the-scenes factory tour where you can watch the future being manufactured.

Unlike other university museums, there are no display cases filled with dusty test tubes or ancient fossils here; instead the MIT Museum pulsates with the intellectual and creative energy that defines the world-famous research institute. Not surprisingly for such a proudly unconventional campus, the museum is a quirky one, housing artifacts that run the spectrum from a robot modeled after a bluefin tuna to a Polaroid portrait of Lady Gaga sporting her signature claw.

On Saturday, the museum will kick off the university’s yearlong 150th birthday celebration with the opening of the “MIT 150’’ exhibition. For the vast majority of us lacking the intellectual horsepower to matriculate at the institute, “MIT 150’’ is more like “MIT 101,’’ a survey course that offers a fascinating peek at the university at work and play.

“Everywhere you turn in the exhibition there is some cool piece of history — some big, some small; some expected, some unexpected,’’ says Deborah Douglas, the museum’s curator of science and technology. “You’ll really get a sense of the impact of this institution on the nation and the world.’’

Leave it to MIT to approach its birthday party as a problem-solving exercise. To select the artifacts, artwork, and films to be part of the “MIT 150’’ exhibition, it employed a scientific principle that it has pioneered — collective intelligence.

“That was one of the most unusual features of the whole process,’’ says John Durant, museum director. “We started a conversation almost two years ago across the MIT community, from current students to alumni to faculty and staff. We got them talking through a website about what might go in the exhibit and got everyone thinking about the best way to represent this place.’’

The collaborative process yielded more than 700 nominations, then the MIT community voted to help select the 150 items on display, some of which were previously unknown even to the museum staff.

The exhibition features some truly historic pieces of technology that sprang from the minds of MIT, such as two signature bookends of the computer age: a mammoth core memory tower from the pioneering 1951 Whirlwind digital computer and a comparatively minuscule One Laptop per Child XO prototype. There’s an original Technicolor camera (MIT alums are the ones who put the “tech’’ in Technicolor) and a guidance system simulator used to train Apollo astronauts.

Other items in the exhibition, although not as groundbreaking, are no less fascinating. One of the most unusual artifacts is a futuristic-looking jacket, designed by the MIT Media Lab and laced with silver wires that transformed the physiological reactions of Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart into abstract art. There’s also the death mask of MIT president Richard Maclaurin, who oversaw the institute’s move from the Back Bay to Cambridge, and vintage Maxwell House coffee cans that are part of a display detailing professor Samuel Prescott’s 1930s quest to scientifically brew the perfect cup of coffee.

One section of “MIT 150’’ focuses on how the MIT community has used Boston as a living laboratory. “There are great examples that show how MIT applies what it does to solve problems locally,’’ Durant says. The most interesting one may be the scale model of Boston used to study wind patterns throughout the city. It’s hard not to feel like Godzilla while gazing down at the Lilliputian versions of the John Hancock Tower, Faneuil Hall, and Trinity Church.

The exhibition is far from just a science class, however. “The most unexpected thing will probably be how important the arts are to the history of MIT,’’ Douglas says. In addition to photography and digital holography, “MIT 150’’ features a giant seascape by MIT graduate Charles Woodbury and a section of an inflatable sculpture by environmental artist Otto Piene.

Of course, MIT students have been known to apply their creative minds to more frivolous pursuits, such as the notorious tradition of pranks, or “hacks’’ as they’re known on campus. The most popular nomination for the exhibition was the Baker House Piano Drop, when students commemorate the last day to drop spring classes by launching a piano off the roof of a six-story dormitory. “MIT 150’’ also includes a “Smoot stick,’’ a ruler equal in length to the five-foot, seven-inch frame of diminutive Oliver Smoot, who was used by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity to measure the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge in 1958. (It’s 364.4 Smoots plus one ear, by the way.)

Just a few Smoots away from the “MIT 150’’ exhibition is the museum’s artificial intelligence gallery, where your inner geek can run wild. The gallery includes video interviews with robot designers and examples of the amazing robots being developed on campus. After literally coming face to face with Kismet, a robot with human-like facial expressions that can mimic human emotions and social behavior, and Cog, an anthropomorphic robot being designed to have tactile and visual capabilities, you will undoubtedly feel as if you’ve been thrust into a sci-fi fantasy world.

The museum’s hologram gallery is another high-tech wonder. It resembles most art galleries, except here the eyes in the portraits really do follow you. In one rainbow-colored hologram, a young woman in a sun hat blows a kiss and winks as you walk across the room. In another hologram framed by a film negative, it appears as if you’re watching a movie scene with a subway train and passengers in motion.

The artwork in the adjacent gallery, which features the kinetic sculptures of Boston-area resident Arthur Ganson, is decidedly more 19th century than 21st. Ganson’s mesmerizing contraptions — made from elemental materials such as steel, wood, and delicate wire — are a mashup of art and mechanical engineering, the fusion of the left brain with the right. The sculptures, which move by electric motor or a turn of a crank, can be simultaneously whimsical and profound. One work consists of a seemingly ambulatory chicken wishbone yoked to an industrial mass of iron and wheels. Is the waddling wishbone a humorous sight or a statement on humanity becoming enslaved to machines?

The museum’s art collection also includes the high-speed photographs of renowned MIT professor Harold “Doc’’ Edgerton, such as his iconic shots of a splashing milk drop and a bullet bisecting a playing card. There are also hybrid photographs of Albert Einstein, which, as you step away, morph into other celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe. It’s the ultimate combination of beauty and brains.

The first floor of the museum showcases some of the current research being undertaken by MIT students and faculty to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as using mechanical engineering principles to fight malaria or collective intelligence to address climate change. “The idea is to give people a sense that MIT is about problem-solving in the present and the future,’’ Durant says. “We don’t want to focus just on what we’ve done in the past because that doesn’t do justice to MIT.’’

Durant calls the museum “a bridge between MIT and the wider community.’’ To that end, it regularly hosts hands-on workshops, salon-style conversations, and even lunches with Nobel laureates where the public can meet and learn from researchers and professors inside MIT’s idea factory at no charge. And as everyone knows, the best parts of any factory tour are usually the free samples.

Christopher Klein can be reached at

If You Go

MIT Museum
265 Massachusetts Ave.
Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed major holidays. Adults, $7.50, students and seniors $3, children under 5 free. Admission free until noon on Sundays and 5-8 p.m. second Friday of each month. The museum also runs the Compton and Hart Nautical galleries on the main campus; admission to both is free.
MIT 150 Exhibition
Jan. 8-Dec. 31, 2011