MIT Collects: Part 1

During his residency at MIT, McDermott Award recipient David Adjaye has connected ideas expressed in his architecture to topics that are of particular interest to the MIT community this academic year. He addressed the “Future of the Library” at a time when the MIT Libraries Task Force is helping to redefine the research library for future generations. As this year’s centennial celebration anticipates the evolution of MIT’s campus architecture over the next hundred years, Adjaye contributed his expertise to the symposium, “The Campus: Then, Now, Next.” Lastly, he will investigate the “Future of the Museum,” in light of his new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. This event will not only address how a museum’s physical space enhances cultural  experiences, but also inform the campus-wide conversation about the MIT Museum’s proposed new building in Kendall Square.

John Durant, The Mark R. Epstein (Class of 1963) Director, MIT Museum, comments, “One of the benefits to us potentially—I hope he knows this—of having David Adjaye here, and people like him over the course of time, is that MIT knows about research, and it knows about innovation, and it knows about teaching, and probably a whole bunch of other things as well, but it does not know much at the high level about museums. So, having people come through who do know about the culture of museums and can increase the basic levels of awareness within the Institute of what museums are, what they are for, what they are like and how they need to work, is really helpful.”    

In this two-part conversation about the MIT Museum’s past, present and future, we talk to Warren Seamans, Founder of the MIT Museum, about how the collection began in 1971 and to John Durant and Ann Neumann, Director of Galleries and Exhibitions, MIT Museum, about the MIT Museum’s future plans and aspirations.   




When was your tenure at the MIT Museum and what was your role?

I am actually the person who founded it. Exactly 45 years ago, we started gathering materials. I retired in 1995; I had given as much as I possibly could. I don’t have any special training in museums. I’ve been able to see what truly professional people are able to do with the collection. We became professional because we had to—we had to learn about conservation and display and all sorts of things.


You say that the “true professionals” took over where you left off. What was your background at MIT before you got involved in founding the museum?

I was in the Air Force for five years, not by choice. I was an investigator in the Air Force, and my stay got extended thanks to the Berlin Wall going up. When I got out of the service I came to Boston because I liked it so much. And I got a job at Stone & Webster Engineering—Stone & Webster were both class of 1888. I was in the personnel department there, and I went around to various schools hiring engineers to work there.

Finally, a position came open in the personnel section at MIT. In personnel, I hired and worked with hourly people and their supervisors. Well, these people are the ones who know where things are around campus. For instance, Elmer Condon was the head of the movers. He’s the one who would take care of it when people said, “We don’t want this portrait hanging here anymore. Get rid of it.” He found places to hide stuff.

After two years, I moved to the Department of Humanities where I was the Administrative Officer. In the Spring of ’71, the humanities department head, Richard Douglas, asked me if I’d find a few photographs because he was on the inauguration committee for Jerry Wiesner. Being an historian, he said, “Why don’t we put up an exhibit about MIT’s history? We always talk about the future, we never talk about the past.” So, he sent me a note asking me to find a few photographs so we could put up an historical exhibit for the inauguration.

That sounds simple. I thought I’ll go to the Archives and select a few photos, but Archives didn’t collect photographs. So, I literally had to start looking for photos. I went to the MIT News Office. MIT had the first News Office of any university in the country, and they had a professional photographer from the very beginning, from the early thirties onward. They had a treasure trove, but they didn’t have the historic stuff. I went to the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts and tracked down things related to the history [of MIT]. In doing this, I started to find objects.


As you found objects, where did you put them?

Luckily, I had an office in N14 and a spare room there, and I was the one who assigned space. So, I could start putting stuff in places. Finally, I appealed to Facilities for more space and was assigned two rooms, where the holography currently is in the museum. The rest of that 2nd floor was filled with broken furniture. During the 1968 takeover of the Student Center, most of the furniture got broken. Instead of throwing it out, they stored it. We got rid of the furniture, and we gradually started taking over that space. We were really the first full-time occupant. It had been the Draper Building.


So, it was a self-driven endeavor. You petitioned for the space and approached the departments asking if you could take certain items to the new museum.

We called it the “Historical Collections.” Everyone would gladly get rid of things; nobody wanted to throw anything out, but they didn’t want it. There is another important part to the story; I mentioned Elmer Condon, head of the movers. He took me to a room in N52 on the second floor—where the kinetic sculptures are now—there was one long narrow room off to the side that was filled with portraits and busts, including two busts of the founder, William Barton Rogers, and his portrait. I loaded it into my little car and took it down to Howard Johnson, who was Chairman of the Corporation, and he was aghast that that stuff was there. He arranged immediately to have that portrait restored. He said, “You’ve got to show [James Rhyne] Killian that room.” Killian said, “Do whatever you have to do, just save this stuff.” To have Johnson and Killian in your court helps.

I started hiring Northeastern work-study students; they were the first employees. It didn’t cost anything, but it was good training for them to come for three months at a time. By ’74 or ’75, I was able to get a small budget to hire MIT students. We continued to use Northeastern work-study students, who were wonderful.


In those first years, was it just you and the work-study students?

No, I eventually hired, with no money, Barbara Lyndon, who was a secretary in the Archives. Then we almost immediately started trying to get the stuff on exhibit in our own facility. By 1974, we had the corridor lined with nice old cases. It was pretty primitive, but nevertheless by ’74 we actually had a couple alumni groups come in for reunions. The alumni don’t want to think of the future only; they want to think of their time at MIT.

One of the things we did—and this was done by an MIT student, David R. Karp ’78—was organize the film collection, which had been stored by the news office. They’d never done anything with it; they had cans and cans of 35mm and 16mm films. David found a film that showed the Civil Engineering summer camp in 1932. The class of ’35 were in tears seeing themselves literally as they were as undergraduates. This convinced people slowly that there was a place for a museum.

MIT did not necessarily want a museum; it wasn’t easy. That said, Jerry Wiesner was phenomenal, and his philosophy was if you have an idea, try it. Don’t take no for an answer. That was his philosophy, whereas at other institutions, they may say, find the money, then try it. MIT is exactly the opposite.


When you found things that weren’t stored to museum standards, did you hire conservators to restore these items?

No, we had no funding to do that. In the summer of 1975, an MIT student named Scott Ferguson organized a room by room search of the campus, working with the Administrative Officers. He found stuff in the attic of Building 2, for example, that no one knew was there. About this same time, we discovered that the Department of Architecture had meticulously cared for all the student drawings—beautiful student drawings. They had developed a collection since 1863-64. All those drawings had been unceremoniously dumped into N52—including early Beaux Arts drawings, I. M. Pei’s student drawings. We had a consultant who came in and showed us what we needed to do, and we worked to restore them with the help of MIT students.

Do you have a favorite exhibit from your time at the Museum?

The furthest reaching exhibit we did was by far the Charles Woodbury exhibit in 1988. It traveled and the catalogue is beautiful. Charles Herbert Woodbury was one of the early American Impressionists, and he was MIT class of 1884. When this campus opened in 1916, before classes began here, they had a huge exhibit of his work.

It’s a much more complicated story than I’m making it, but his family gave a lot of his paintings to MIT upon his death. We found a number of his paintings that were being thrown out by the Committee for Visual Arts. They didn’t consider it art—that was Wayne Andersen’s group—if it wasn’t made sometime in the last 15 minutes, it wasn’t art. [Laughter]. Literally, they had them stored under the steps on 77 Massachusetts Avenue. We had those restored and had a major exhibit of his work in 1988. We also made a conscious decision to get local people in. We asked area artists if they would like to have an exhibit at the museum. We did a number of those shows—45 or 50 over a period.


We now see the MIT Museum as having a great ability to connect with the community. Was public outreach part of the mission from the beginning?

I think it definitely was always part of the mission. We were doing whatever we could to attract the MIT audiences and the surrounding community. We did hire an education coordinator early on, Maria Conroy, who developed great programs with local schools.

The mentality that the Museum brought to the Institute—the value of preserving and documenting everything—seems pervasive now. As you mentioned, I.M. Pei’s student drawings were found in less than desirable conditions with mold and damp. It’s hard to imagine that happening now.

I hope that the respect for the physical object isn’t lost. If you have pictures of I.M. Pei’s drawings on your iPhone, it’s not the same.

How does architectural space relate to the preservation and display of physical artifacts? Throughout David Adjaye’s residency, we’ve been ruminating on how physical space affects user experience. Can you comment on this idea?

The social experience of interacting with the curators and having them explain things is important. You can read about or see images of objects online sometimes, but it’s not quite the same. It’s kind of like watching a movie versus seeing a play. Every performance of a play is unique, yet a film is going to be the same every time you see it.

Whenever you were scouring the Institute, room by room, did you find a particularly unusual object that surprised you?

In every department, there was so much of importance, it’s hard to say. That’s a good question. You’ve perhaps heard stories about the infamous Building 20. It was built during the early 40’s to house the development of radar. In ’76 the RadLab was closed, all sorts of photographs were taken to Mechanicsburg, PA, to a government warehouse because they were government property. For the RadLab reunion in 1976, Al Hill asked me to go to PA to choose a few photos to exhibit. There were like 80 boxes. It was overwhelming to choose 100 photos. I called Al Hill. He called the National Archivist and determined the stuff was on track for disposal. It had been there 25 years. He said rent a truck and get the stuff back. They were thrilled to get rid of it. We had it processed right away. Now it’s this priceless collection documenting the whole history of radar.  

At the pace you were collecting things, like 80 boxes of photos or bulky equipment, I imagine you expanded beyond two rooms in N52 pretty quickly.

Oh yes, we rapidly got the full basement. It was the best we could do. In this landfill we’re in, you always fear floods. But that entire N52 basement was filled with stuff. We bought the entire museum of holography from New York and put in a holography lab in the basement. We always had our eyes on N51, but architecture had that. Architecture had the first floor, but we got the second floor of N51. We kept expanding, and we actually had stuff stored where the model railroad club now meets (N52-118).

In your time at the Museum, did you see people’s attitude toward history shift on campus?

Definitely. It wasn’t that anyone was anti-museum. It just wasn’t their bag. They were more concerned about what was coming out of their labs. There wasn’t a feeling that people were against having a museum, and being such a low-budget operation as we were, we were not depriving anyone of funding.


This year’s McDermott Award recipient David Adjaye concludes his residency at MIT on April 28, 2016, with a panel discussion about the “Future of the Museum.” He will be joined by acclaimed artists, architects and curators to discuss how a museum’s physical space enhances cultural experiences and how museums can engage more diverse audiences.

Posted on April 28, 2016 by Sharon Lacey