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Welcome to the MIT Museum’s ‘spiffy’ new digs in Kendall Square

The museum’s director, John Durant, talks about the new location and what makes the institution such a special place.

John Durant is director of the MIT Museum, which has moved into new quarters in Kendall Square.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — The MIT Museum officially opened its new quarters on Oct. 2. After half a century on the edge of Central Square, it’s moved to the heart of Kendall Square, slightly more than half a mile away. The museum, designed by the firm Höweler + Yoon, takes up the first three floors of a mixed-used 14-story development. Only a fraction of the more than 1 million items in its collection are on display, but it’s a larger fraction than could be seen in the old building.

John Durant, who’s been the museum’s director since 2005, recently talked about the move and what it means for the museum.


Q. MIT is forgoing some serious rental income having you here, in the heart of Kendall Square. That shows quite a commitment.

A. It does. There’s no doubt this space could have been used for commercial rents. The space above our heads is being used for that purpose. But this whole Kendall Square development along Main Street was always conceived by the institute as a commercial and educational project. I think MIT is committing itself here to the importance of its museum as a kind of gateway institution, as a way of helping the wider community understand what MIT is about.

We stand the risk of being intimidating. I feel the pressure of, if you like, the larger images that are associated with a place like MIT, a place where only super-smart people go and do super-impressive things: hard, difficult, inaccessible. We really want to get beyond that.

Q. The old building, on Mass. Ave., was easy to overlook. Also, it was a hike from the Central Square T station. Here you’re right next to the Kendall Square stop.

A. That’s absolutely right. I sometimes say that if I had been given a chance to put a pin in the MIT map for the new museum, it would be here. This is ideal. It’s a gateway location, as I said, and slam-bang next to the Red Line.


Q. The old building had some funkiness.

A. It did.

Q. Funky the new building is not.

A. The old building was often described as quirky. We made the best of what we had there, with a preexisting building. This is a purposely designed museum. It looks quite spiffy. We didn’t want to build in arbitrariness. That would be perverse. But the museum does have a personality already, reflecting the personality of MIT, both of which change and develop by the day.

Q. The new building has 30 percent more gallery space than the old — and 300 percent more space for activities.

A. We’ve always placed an emphasis on where interesting things happen, not just where interesting things can be seen. We wanted to increase radically the amount of space for visitor programs. We see ourselves as a forum, or meeting ground, for a variety of stakeholders, not just MIT faculty and students and alumni, but also entrepreneurs, school students, and others. You can only come together if you’ve got somewhere to do that.

Q. So many of the displays are interactive.

A. We know from a lot of museum visitor studies, especially museums that have a prevailing technical content, that the chance to participate with interactivity is really important. And if you want to say to people you’re invited in, but then you push them away, that’s a contradiction.


MIT Museum director John Durant in front of Andy Cavatorta's "Whale," which is on display at the museum. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Q. Here’s an unfair question: Do you have a favorite display?

A. It is unfair, but I will nevertheless answer it. I have a couple I’m particularly fond of, which isn’t to say I’m not fond of everything else.

The first is one of the many art objects we have. It’s a new kinetic sculpture by Andy Cavatorta, called “Whale.” It’s inspired by the bowhead whale. It’s entirely electromechanical. It sings its own songs, which are produced by the sculpture, and the songs have been programmed to last for 200 years. That’s the estimated lifespan of the bowhead whale. So I might say this is an homage to some of our largest relatives. It’s also a profoundly moving piece, and the songs this piece makes as it turns spread throughout the museum.

The second is very different. In our collections gallery, we show an extraordinary original artifact created by a former MIT professor, Claude Shannon, who’s one of the architects of the information age. Way back in the 1950s Shannon built a series of playthings for his children, but he made them incorporating some of his understanding of information science. One of them, “Theseus,” is a mechanical maze, made of aluminum, inside which is a mechanical mouse, looking for a piece of metal, the cheese. Underneath are some electromechanical trackers, so the mouse would move by trial and error until it finally found the cheese. But here’s the amazing thing: If you moved the mouse and relocated it, it would find its way to the cheese. So this is arguably the world’s first thinking machine. By modern standards, it’s incredibly primitive. For 1950 or ‘51, it was a miracle.


Alongside the original, which will never work again, we have an identical-looking replica, which does work. We demonstrate it on the floor regularly.

Q. Hardest thing to leave out?

A. [Laughs] Oh, all the rest! We are a museum destined to always leave things out. The spread of our interests covers the whole range of things MIT does. So we’re never going to be able to do anything except choose examples. Right now, for instance, and it’s a bit painful to say this, we don’t have anything from our large collection of holograms on display.

Q. You can’t show everything. It would be like that [Jorge Luis] Borges story about the man making a map with a one-to-one correspondence with the territory he’s mapping.

A. Yes. I think our motto here has been to do the particular and go for stories rather than going down the path of the encyclopedic. As with Borges, that way madness lies. We have to learn the art of economy and to be ruthless. It’s the stories that linger when all the details have gone.

Q. Many colleges and universities have museums, but they’re art history museums or natural history museums. This is the MIT Museum. There isn’t a Harvard Museum. That says something about the institute and its uniqueness.


A. It does. Most university museums start in a particular way. A department needs objects for its research, so they build up a research collection. The faculty says we want to use this collection to teach. So a display is put up. Why not let the public in? That’s not how the MIT Museum starts. We started back in the 1970s. MIT being more than a hundred years old, it had accumulated a lot of stuff and didn’t know what to do with it. It got sent to a library, but these items weren’t books or papers. So the MIT Museum is a solution to the old problem of what to do with stuff in the attic: We have one place, one collection.

Q. Is the museum fundamentally about MIT or about the larger world of scientific research?

A. The selection is more to do with MIT than anything else. But MIT is not a parochial place. So if you look at what researchers here are doing, it has a much wider significance. It just happens that the questions they’re asking are being asked here. So if we concentrated on just MIT stories, we’d be parochial as the institute we claim to represent is not. Also, we’re not just science, but also engineering, architecture, design, art.

Q. How much exhibition turnover do you anticipate?

A. I hope quite a bit. Some of our galleries are intended to be longer, like the ones about MIT and our collections. But in between, we have a number of special exhibition galleries we expect to turn over: artificial intelligence, gene culture, one to two years. Depending.

Q. Not 200 years, though.

A. Not 200 years, no.

Interview was edited and condensed.


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