3 questions: John Durant on the new MIT museum in Kendall Square | MIT News

To the outside world, much of what happens at MIT may seem mysterious. But the MIT museum, whose new location is in the heart of Kendall Square, wants to change that. With a space specially designed by architects Höweler + Yoon, new exhibitions and new public programs, this fall marks a renewal for the fifty-year-old institution.

The museum hopes to inspire future generations of scientists, engineers and innovators. And with its new free membership for Cambridge residents, the museum sends a clear message to its neighbors that all are welcome.

John Durant, Director of the Mark R. Epstein (Class of 1963) at MIT Museum and an affiliate of MIT’s Science, Technology, and Society program, talks here about the museum’s transformation and what’s to come when it opens its doors to the public on October 2.

Q: What role will the new museum play in making MIT more accessible and better understood?

A: The MIT Museum consciously stands at the interface between a world-renowned research institute and the rest of the world. Our job here is to “turn MIT inside out,” making what MIT does visible and accessible to the world. We focus on the question: what does all this creativity, research, innovation, intensive teaching and learning mean from MIT to MIT? What does all of this mean for the wider community of which we are a part?

Our job as a museum is to make accessible what MIT does, both processes and products. We do this for two reasons. First of all, MIT’s mission statement is a public service mission statement – it intends to help make the world a better place. The second reason is that MIT is involved in ideas and innovations that can change the world. If these are ideas, discoveries, inventions and applications that can literally change the world, then we have a responsibility to the world. We have a responsibility to make these things available to people who will ultimately be affected by them, so that we can have the kind of informed conversations that are needed in a democratic society.

“Essential MIT,” the museum’s first gallery, shines a light on the people behind research and innovation at MIT. While it’s tempting to focus on the products of search, ultimately everything we do is about the people who do it. We want to humanize research and innovation, and the best way to achieve this is to put people – whether they are senior professors, junior professors, students or even visitors – at the center of the story. In fact, there will be a large digital wall display of all of us, a visualization of the MIT community, and the visitor can join that community on a temporary basis if they wish, by stepping into the display.

MIT can sometimes seem like a rather austere place. It can be considered the kind of place where only these super smart people are going to do super smart things. We do not want to send this message. We are an open campus and we want to send the message to people that whoever they are, from whatever background, whatever part of the community, whatever language they speak, wherever they live, they have a warm welcome with us.

Q: How will the museum present innovation and research?

A: The new museum is structured in a series of eight galleries, which spiral up the building, and travel from the local to the global and vice versa. “Essential MIT” is quite explicitly an introduction to the Institute itself. In this gallery, we feature some examples of current major projects that illustrate the type of work done by MIT. In the last gallery, the museum becomes local again through the museum’s collections. On the top floor, for the first time in the history of the museum, we will be able to show visitors that we are a collection museum and that we hold all kinds of objects and artefacts, which constitute a permanent record – an archive, if you will — of the research and innovation that took place here.

But, of course, MIT doesn’t just deal with things that only have local significance. He is involved in some of the biggest research questions that are being tackled in the world: climate change, fundamental physics, genetics, artificial intelligence, the nature of cancer, and many others. Between the two bookends of these galleries that are more locally oriented, we have therefore placed galleries dealing with global issues of research and innovation. We try to emphasize that current research and innovation raises big questions that go beyond the purely scientific or purely technical. We don’t want to shy away from the ethical, social or even political questions posed by this new research, and some of these larger questions will be addressed “head-on” in these galleries.

For example, we’ve never tried to explain to people what AI is and isn’t, and some of its wider implications for society. In “AI: Mind the Gap”, we will explain what AI is good at doing, and at the same time, what it is not good at doing. For example, we will have an interactive exhibit that will allow visitors to see a neural network learning in real time – in this case, how to recognize faces and facial expressions. These learning machines are fundamental to what AI can do, and there are many positive applications of this in the real world. We will also give people the ability to use AI to create poetry. But we’ll also look at some of the bigger concerns that some of these technologies raise – issues like algorithmic bias or the area called deepfake technology, which is becoming more widely used. In order to explain this technology to people, we are going to display an artwork based on the Apollo moon landings that uses deepfakes.

Nothing in the new museum is anything the visitor will have seen before, with one exception, and that is by careful design. We bring with us some of the kinetic or moving sculptures of artist Arthur Ganson. We appreciate the connections his work makes at the interface between science, technology and the arts. By trying to get people to think differently about what’s happening in the worlds of research and innovation, artists often bring new perspectives.

Q: What kinds of educational opportunities will the museum now be able to present?

A: The new museum has about 30% more space for galleries and exhibits than the old museum, but it has about 300% more space for face-to-face activities. We are going to have two fully equipped teaching labs in the new museum, where we can teach a very wide variety of subjects, including wet lab work. We will also have the Maker Hub, a fully equipped maker space for the public. MIT’s motto is “mens et manus”, mind and hand, and we want to be true to that. We want to give people a chance not only to watch things, but also to do things, to do them themselves.

At the heart of the new museum is a space called The Exchange, designed for face-to-face meetings, short lectures, demonstrations, panel discussions, debates, films, you name it. I see The Exchange as the living room of the new museum, a place with double height ceilings, bleachers and a very large LED screen so that we can show almost everything we need to show. It is a place where visitors can gather, learn, discuss and debate; where they can have conversations about what to do about deepfakes, or how to apply gene editing most wisely, or whatever the issue of the day is. We shamelessly put these conversations center stage.

Finally, the first month of opening events includes an MIT Community Day, a Cambridge Residents’ Day, and the public opening of the museum on October 2. The first week after opening will feature the Cambridge Science Festival, the festival founded and presented by the MIT Museum which has been revamped this year. The festival will showcase large-scale projects, many of which will take place in MIT’s Open Space, an area we consider the “front lawn” of the new museum.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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