City Car model at the MIT museum

City Car model at the MIT museum

10/24/2007

A Museum Makeover

by Andrea Carter

The inner workings of a research giant such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can be both mysterious and incomprehensible to an outsider. MIT opened its doors to the public this September with the new Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery, which offers interactive exhibits on current MIT research. On the outside, the makeover does a better job of drawing people in, however once inside some of the exhibits fall short in communicating their message.

Aesthetically, the new gallery serves as a more inviting interface from the city sidewalk into the realm of MIT research compared to the previous layout.  Before the renovation, the museum seemed hidden among the busy retail area of Central Square. Now, large windows with transparent images of zebra fish and the eco-friendly City Car curve with the sidewalk. Above the windows, vertical strips of metal with a mesh like texture rise up towards the sky, giving the museum a stronger presence in the neighborhood.  Through the front door is the new gallery, which is very open and inviting compared to the previous entrance, a staircase that leads to the ticket counter on the second floor. Before the makeover, the entrance felt more like visiting a student’s apartment rather than a museum. The natural light shining through the gallery’s windows makes a pleasant and open exhibit space compared to the original museum on the second floor, which has few windows and feels more closed in.

The new gallery offers a glimpse of what is happening now at MIT rather than focusing on its past. First opened in 1971, the museum has showcased MIT ‘s history and its collection of quirky art-science hybrid exhibits, such as a collection of holographs, resembling the spooky ghouls from Disneyland’s Haunted House and the kinetic sculptures of MIT artist in residence Arthur Ganson. The first exhibit past the front door addresses the energy crisis with the City Car, developed by the MIT Media Lab. Designed to use less energy and thus leave a smaller carbon footprint, the car is meant for city dwellers commuting short distances.  Instead of returning the cars to a central locale, a user can drop them off at a convenient site near home. The cars stack onto themselves like luggage carriers at the airport for storage and to recharge. The next exhibit jumps to cancer research. It highlights the research of Nancy Hopkins who studies zebrafish genes in development. Mutations of certain genes lead to tumors, so the fish serve as a model to study cancer. Other exhibits discuss ocean exploration and hybrid images composed of various resolutions that look different depending on where the viewer stands. However, the highlighted research in the gallery appears to have been chosen more for the opportunity for visitor interaction rather than to tell a cohesive story.

Although the hands-on parts of the exhibits help explain the research with examples, some interactions fail to be user friendly. On the first day of the opening kids hung off a full-scale model of the City Car waiting their turn as a boy maneuvered the car in a driving simulation. However, by the second day, a sign hung from the top of the car announcing that the simulation was not working.  Two rows of aquariums stacked one on top of each other showcased live normal and mutant zebrafish, which was a nice touch for the Zebrafish and Cancer exhibit. Visitors could also “find the tumors” in histological slides of the fish using a magnifying glass. It did seem a bit morbid, however, watching kids playfully searching for a neuroblastoma tumor, a cancer of the neurons, which primarily affects children.

With the opening of the Mark Epstein Gallery MIT provides a window into its research world. Although a generous step forward, some gallery exhibits have become lost in the details overlooking the bigger picture of designing exhibits that can stand up to the public’s perusal and use and linking the exhibits together to tell a story. With practice, the museum may find the right balance as exhibits rotate in the new gallery in the coming months.