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Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things

Exhibition at MIT Museum celebrates the history of common objects


Museums are renowned for showcasing the extraordinary: the Louvre has da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Michelangelo’s David, and the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone. But a new show at the MIT Museum is celebrating something far more commonplace: clothespins.

Titled Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things, the exhibition presents a number of common objects that we use daily, but whose ingenuity we often take for granted, and focuses on the production, evolution, and inspiration that led to their creation. The 36 “hidden heroes” on display are classics, such as Scotch tape, lightbulbs, and tea bags—simple, yet innovative inventions that have stood the test of time.

Other items on display range from pens and pacifiers to Band-Aids and bubble wrap. The show provides the fascinating history behind each invention. Visitors will discover lots of arcana: tin cans were invented after Napoleon Bonaparte launched a competition to find a way to efficiently carry food supplies to his armies; 40 billion paper tissues are used annually in Germany; and tape was originally used to seal food wrap. It’s a trivia junkie’s dream come true.

The exhibition also emphasizes that the invention of many commonplace items came about purely by accident. Bubble Wrap started as an experiment for a new type of wallpaper, while Post-it notes were created after a failed experiment.

Visitors will also learn that paper clips are based on the principle of elasticity and that safety matches were made “safe” by changing the type of phosphorous used in the matches.

Hidden Heroes is informative without getting too technical; it’s a show that both adults and children can understand and enjoy. Where else can you learn about tissues, earplugs, LEGOs, condoms, and umbrellas all in one place?

Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things is on view through September 27 in the Thomas Peterson ’57 Gallery at the MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. General admission is $8.50; $4 reduced tickets are available for children, students, and seniors. Admission is free from 6 to 8 p.m. on the second Friday of each month. To get there by public transportation, take a MBTA Red Line trolley to Central Square. Walk south on Mass. Avenue until you come to the intersection of Mass. Avenue and Front Street (about a five minute walk). The museum is directly across the street from a Sunoco station.

View the exhibition here.

Irene Berman-Vaporis can be reached at imbv@bu.edu.

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