Skip to Content

The MIT Museum

Context is all, and the MIT Museum, well, looks like it belongs at MIT. The core of MIT’s campus, which despite recent additions, looks like a not-completely-unfortunate collision between a cargo train of Quonset huts and a hyperactive concrete factory, often feels like an aggressive celebration of the triumph of utility over form.

The museum itself, set in a collection of low-rises in the commercial ghetto between campus and Central Square, is a bunker with cramped, sideways approaches: It lies askew to the main axis of the area and hides itself away, size and shape receding behind the façade. Saying that this adds to a budding sense of excitement would be hyperbole of the worst sort: Approaching the museum has all the majesty of walking up to a poorly situated convenience store.

My visit is informed by my own context: My college physics work was notable only for the brutality I routinely and inadvertently inflicted on equations as I tried to wring answers out of them; my stint as an actual graduate student at MIT was at the business school, which the rest of the MIT student body charitably viewed at best as an alien intrusion and at worst as a home for the lesser equipped. Chip on my shoulder? No, but my baggage cart is full.

Once inside the building, you’re enveloped by a cool minimalism reminiscent of a Philippe Starck hotel lobby, but at least here there’s no doubt that it’s an authentic statement. Unfortunately, despite the hint of a hotel lobby, there’s no matching bar.

Ascend the stairs to the main gallery on the second floor, and your footsteps trigger musical notes at each tread. Yes, a sense of humor pervades the space. But are they just making light of overly serious endeavors or showing off their mastery? Humor, even when illuminating, is domination of the audience or the object. Perhaps it’s a part of the self-consciousness that pervades the place, this earnest effort to connect you to the essential humanity behind the science.

A collection of small, mechanical devices deconstruct elements of nature while simultaneously exulting in their own artificial life: One is endlessly self-nourishing, lifting and pouring oil over itself, like a small Sisyphus, but with purpose; another mimics miniature flying birds constructed from small pieces of paper and metal, moving in a more stately fashion than nature itself.

Other exhibits highlight major advances in technology and scientific thought: Wiener’s cybernetics, Land’s Polaroid camera, Shannon’s information theory, and so on. Virtually all are organized around a defining individual, with photographs of the scientists mounted with the reverence of icons: “You may know the science, but remember them.”

Elsewhere, a collection of holograms, mostly of scientists, fills a room. Monuments to essential human connections, they stand as eerie memento mori. The most arresting is that of the late Keith Haring, looking out at you looking in, an artist captured by scientists, his momentary inspection in turn presented for your lingering one. Homage to an artist or assertion of primacy, it’s hard to be sure. The perceptual gamesmanship returns to a lighter note with a hybrid photograph in which Albert Einstein morphs into Marilyn Monroe. The scientist as jokester? Yes, but also an assertion that the beauty of discovery should rival beauty itself.

Lastly, a classic of MIT’s campus life, the remains of a piano pushed (a different one every year) off the fifth-story roof of a campus building, with high-speed photographs and charts illustrating the literal descent of the piano in front of thousands of spectators — and, hence, the metaphorical descent of man. Just kidding! It’s mocking gravity and entropy at the same time it delights in the shared understanding of these concepts more than the concepts themselves.

You can’t get at the real joke unless you peer across that divide to the community itself, which is defined by the fact that its members understand and even play with these concepts. It’s not just the science — it’s the scientists.