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New MIT Museum glimpses the future and examines school’s past

The 56,000-square-foot museum, which opens this weekend, has scientific marvels, a monstrous ‘mermaid,’ and a message for the general public. ‘We want people to feel that this is their museum,’ says director John Durant.

The MIT Museum will open its new 56,000-square-foot, purpose-built home to the public on Oct. 2.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A kinetic sculpture that unspools over the lifespan of the universe, which is to say, very slowly. Scientific “proof” that mermaids are real. A chance to write poetry with the help of a robot, or view a version of counterfactual history: a televised speech President Nixon prepared, but never had to make, informing the country that the Apollo 11 mission had ended in disaster.

These are just a few of the provocative concepts and objects on view at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s new MIT Museum, a purpose-built exhibition and gathering space in the heart of Kendall Square. The new museum, which seeks to demystify some of the school’s opaque inner workings, makes itself broadly approachable with expanded gallery space, forum areas, learning labs, and a maker hub where visitors can work on museum-led projects. It opens to the general public on Sunday.

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Last-minute work setting up in The Exchange, one of two staircase gathering spaces in the new museum. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“We’re trying to turn MIT inside-out, so that things that usually are hidden and not so well seen are accessible to everyone,” said museum director John Durant. “MIT can feel quite intimidating. People, I think, have this image of all these very smart people doing obscure things. We’re trying to be the opposite of that: We want people to feel that this is their museum.”

With an estimated 1.5 million objects in its collection, the MIT Museum is a rare hybrid in the museum world. Neither science center nor art museum, it inhabits a space in between, where the historical objects of scientific discovery — the early social robot, “Kismet,” say — co-exist with an art project that considers the consequences of genetically engineering the estimated 60 billion chickens we consume annually: If they were turned bright pink, would it create a roseate layer in the geologic record?

“We’ve always been interested in the arts and in their dialogue with science,” said Durant. “I often say we have one foot in MIT’s past and one foot in the future.”

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MIT Provost Cynthia Barnhart said the 56,000-square-foot museum, which sprawls across three floors of the larger Gambrill Center opposite the Kendall/MIT MBTA stop, completes a “trio of spaces” in the campus’s gateway, including a new welcome center and community green space.

“[T]he Museum showcases MIT’s historical contributions to science and technology and makes the Institute’s art and artifacts accessible to the world,” she said in a statement.

To that end, the new museum’s ground floor, which is free to enter, is dominated by a large staircase for students and the public to gather for talks, events, or just a cup of coffee.

The lobby adjoins an expanded museum store and will feature a series of temporary art installations, the first of which is “A Counting” by Ekene Ijeoma, which invites visitors to record themselves counting to 100 in their native language.

Climbing the grand staircase, Durant described how the museum’s new facility isn’t much larger than the old radio factory it used to call home on Massachusetts Avenue. The difference is that the new space, designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, is built specifically to display objects from the museum’s collection, everything from early prosthetic limbs to deep space instruments, as well as host traveling exhibitions and events.

Seating by the front entrance of the museum is used here for a class taught by John Durant, director of the MIT Museum. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“Everything is a complete upgrade,” said Durant, who has led the museum since 2005. He described how the old building had scant gallery space, suffered leaks, and “wasn’t really well-suited to being a museum.” “My feeling when I first came was that MIT deserves a better museum than we could make in the place we had. I’ve been working towards this all the time I’ve been here.”

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The first gallery on the second floor provides an overview of some of MIT’s greatest hits, including the prototype of a device to detect the infinitesimal gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity, an instrument like those aboard the Voyager spacecraft, and something called LiquiGlide, which keeps ketchup and other sticky substances from clinging to the sides of a bottle.

"Coring America" (2022), a textile art installation made from T-shirts by Azra Aksamija and the Future Heritage Lab.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Groundbreaking projects are front and center, but the exhibition also emphasizes the role culture plays in the university’s research. Sound pods enable visitors to hear the reflections of individual scientists. Museum-goers can also create a personal profile by entering information that is uploaded to an expansive video wall, their whimsical avatar set loose within an animated representation of the MIT community.

“Science is embedded in culture, and that is incredibly important to technology decisions,” said galleries and exhibitions director Ann Neumann. “Who should be part of those conversations? It has to be artists, it has to be the larger community, and that needs to inform the work of the scientist.”

The inaugural show in an adjoining gallery for temporary exhibitions, “Gene Cultures,” explores the ethical and cultural implications of biotechnology and gene-editing. The exhibit presents scientific artifacts — a section of an early gene sequencing machine, for instance — alongside speculative artworks such as Richard Pell’s “Mermaid De-Extinction Project” (2022), which invokes genomics and includes a monstrous taxidermied “mermaid” that looks like it was plucked from the deepest sea.

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In addition to “The Exchange,” another staircase gathering area for programs and events, the second floor has a maker hub replete with 3-D printers, sewing machines, and a laser cutter. There is also a pair of learning labs that will be available to groups and on a drop-in basis, where attendees can perform guided hands-on experiments.

“We’re talking extracting DNA from strawberries,” said Durant, who added that the labs and maker hub are free with admission. “We wanted to give our visitors a chance to actually do stuff.”

Third-floor galleries include an exhibition of kinetic sculptures by Arthur Ganson and Andy Cavatorta. The show features several well-known works by Ganson, including “Beholding the Big Bang,” a series of gears that reduces its speed to where the final gear, its spindle embedded in a block of cement, will take 13.7 billion years to complete a single revolution — the estimated age of the universe. Cavatorta’s work “Whale” is similarly critic proof: a large-scale kinetic sculpture that performs a piece of music set to unfold over the course of two centuries, or roughly the lifespan of a bowhead whale.

Chris Burns, a contractor, working on an exhibition at the museum; in background is Andy Cavatorta's "Whale" (2022). David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Cavatorta, who was recently fine tuning “Whale” in the gallery, said he composed the work using an artificial intelligence method known as a neural network, “some machine learning based on songs of humpback whales and bowhead whales, and a little bit of [the medieval composer] Hildegard von Bingen.”

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“Is it any good?” he asked. “Well, I won’t really ever be able to fully hear it.”

A nearby gallery explores artificial intelligence, including a chance to make a “sandwich” with a workplace robot and an opportunity to write an AI-assisted poem. A section devoted to deep fakes, or video forgeries, includes the eerie “In Event of Moon Disaster,” which simulates President Nixon giving the contingency speech he’d had prepared (but never actually delivered) in case the Apollo 11 mission ended in disaster.

The final gallery includes a photo exhibition from MIT’s Creative Photography Laboratory as well as “MIT Collects,” a veritable cabinet of wonders from the museum’s collection.

Presented in lighted vitrines mounted on the back wall and standalone displays, the objects include everything from a model of a wheelchair that can climb steps to a mouse maze curators believe is one of the earliest examples of machine learning.

A display wall in the new MIT Museum.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

One display details the role of play in science and technology. Another shows some of the more famous student pranks over the years, including the infamous 1982 balloon hack of the Harvard-Yale football game, and the Smoot, a unit of measurement for the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge based on the height of a diminutive MIT alumnus named Oliver Smoot.

There’s also a display devoted to the school’s complicated racial past that includes an oral history of Black students, faculty, and others associated with the university. Pointedly, the display includes a bust of MIT’s influential third president, Francis Walker, who became the school’s leader in 1881. A Civil War veteran, Walker had previously served briefly as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, later writing a book that advocated the separation of Native American tribes that resisted assimilation, concentrating them on reservations.

“There’s just no escaping that the man was a flagrant racist,” said the museum’s director of collections Deborah Douglas, who added that Walker’s bust has been in the museum’s collection for about a quarter century. She described how she worked with students to help contextualize the sculpture. “Some were very nervous and didn’t want him anywhere. Some were like, ‘Oh, you should bang him with a hammer.’ And some were like: ‘No, no, you should display him, but take him off the pedestal.’ That became the consensus.”

The museum will be free for Cambridge residents, who were able to get an early look at the new space on Saturday. The museum’s opening also coincides with this year’s Cambridge Science Festival (Oct. 3-9), and composer Tod Machover will present three world premieres later in the month to mark the museum’s opening.

“I see this as a kind of statement of good faith by the Institute to the community,” said Durant, who described the new museum as a “meeting ground.”

“We want this to be a place where people can come and learn about what we’re doing,he added, “but also ask questions or challenge us, to have a dialogue.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him @malcolmgay.