MIT Collects: Part 2

Posted on June 1, 2016 by Sharon Lacey

If you think museums are dusty repositories, read on. Meejin Yoon, Professor and Head of MIT Department of Architecture, reminded us at the panel discussion, “Future of the Museum,” “The museum is not just a building, but an institution. As institutions, museums are collections, archives, think tanks and agents. They can tell stories, provoke and organize. They are cultural condensers and catalysts.”

“Future of the Museum” concluded a trilogy of future-focused events, which featured 2016 McDermott Award recipient David Adjaye. Adjaye’s museum designs include the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver (2007), The Studio Museum in Harlem (ongoing), and the eagerly awaited Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, DC (opening September 2016). On this occasion, Adjaye was joined by Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator, Studio Museum in Harlem; Jill Medvedow, Ellen Matilda Poss Director, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Charles Renfro, Partner, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; and artist Lorna Simpson. These experts weighed in on how museums can incite social change (inside and outside their walls), and how architecture can mediate between artists, institutions and the public.

The conversation that unfolded was particularly timely and meaningful to the campus community, for the MIT Museum faces a defining moment in its history, as it reimagines itself for its move to a new facility in a gateway position in Kendall Square. We began discussing the MIT Museum’s past, present and future with Warren Seamans, Founder of the MIT Museum, who described how the collection began 45 years ago. Now, we continue the conversation with John Durant,The Mark R. Epstein (Class of 1963) Director, MIT Museum, and Ann Neumann, Director of Galleries and Exhibitions, MIT Museum, who share their thoughts about the MIT Museum’s future plans and aspirations.




When you became Director of the MIT Museum in 2005, what were your overall impressions of the space? Was it configured similarly to how it is now?

John Durant: In 2005 the museum only functioned on the second floor of these buildings. There was nothing at ground level except the staircase; the actual museum entrance and admission desk were on the second floor. My overwhelming impression, with no intention to pay anything but respect to my predecessors, was that this museum was still something of a well-kept secret—that although the people who came here liked it, very few people knew that we were here.

When I came, we immediately wrote a new five-year strategic plan. A key objective was to increase the public profile of the museum, which included getting our hands on some ground floor space. At the end of 2007 we opened on the ground floor behind new big plate glass windows with a very visible face to the street.


How did the current plan for moving the MIT Museum from its current location on the north edge of campus to Kendall Square come out?

JD: We make very good use of the spaces here, but they’re about as inconvenient as museum spaces could be. We’re in bits of two separate buildings on two different levels, with low ceilings. The buildings are old and every time you try to change anything in any one space, you have to renovate right back to the main fabric of the building.

I had an ambition when I first arrived that as soon as we decently could, we were going to move to a better facility. More than ten years ago we said we’re moving, and we actually said where we wanted to go, which was to a gigantic brick fireproof building called the Metropolitan Warehouse down on the junction of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street. My feeling was—like many other museum directors worldwide—that if you had the resources, you could adapt this old building and make a fantastic venue in a much more pivotal position on the campus than our current location.

For two or three years, that was our objective. I realized that we were unlikely to be able to make the case to go there in one jump. Our visitation ten years ago was between 30,000 and 40,000 people a year (on the generous side). That’s not a great base on which to say we’re going to go to a great big new building that will cost gazillions of dollars to renovate. We had to prove ourselves.

The ground floor expansion was a stepping-stone. We would grow on the site and show what we could do. And that would be a basis for a move. From ’04 to today, there’s not been a single year when our visitation hasn’t grown. We started the Cambridge Science Festival the same year that we opened the ground floor. The combination of these two things—some real estate on the ground and a big annual outreach initiative—really changed things. So today we have somewhere between 130,000 and 140,000 people a year coming.

The prospective move is so exciting because the proposal—not the same as the one I started with, and which came up quite unexpectedly to us through the Kendall Square redevelopment—is to put us into what will be a new gateway position for the campus, which, for obvious reasons, is exactly where we should be.


How do you envision the future space allowing you to better serve your audiences?

Ann Neumann: We’re just starting to think about the vision and exhibition program for the new museum. The move provides an exciting opportunity for us to enhance our relationship with the tech innovation communities that geographically we’ve been a little distant from. We’re in a unique position to become a portal to the heart of the campus and to communicate MIT’s problem-solving ethos to our visitors. We envision becoming the venue for conversations and interactions with new neighbors, which is really the promise of being in Kendall Square for us. Now, we’re in the phase of listening to all our stakeholders and the community to form in more detail what would be relevant and interesting. We’re still quite a few years out, so we don’t want to start setting themes that are too specific yet, and the world is changing quickly. Even museum practice is changing, so we’re in the discovery phase of deciding how we will evolve.

JD: We are not assuming that a new museum is simply an opportunity to take what we do here and keep doing it over there. Some of the things we do here we certainly want to take, but we’re re-examining everything. It’s a chance to reinvent ourselves. It’s a chance for us to stand back and really question as many different things as possible about what we do and how we do it because you don’t get these opportunities every day.

AN: And this is a pretty young museum. It started out as a response; someone needed to collect this stuff. Then curating, research and telling the stories followed. At first, it was mostly the history being told, and then increasingly we were engaging more and more with both students and researchers and being more forward thinking about the experiences. You know how you think of your teenage years when you can still act up a little bit—that looseness is part of what is key at the MIT Museum. If we can hold onto this lively and responsive spirit while preserving access to the repository, we’ve succeeded.

JD: That’s such a perceptive remark, if I may say so, and such a risk for us. One part of our brand has been rather tightly bound in some ways to the quirkiness of our spaces. It looks a little bit like we just sort of strung it all together as best we could, because indeed that’s what we’ve done. But that has been endearing to many people. We can be slightly funky and slightly unconventional, and in some ways, we get away with things that other museums maybe wouldn’t. Going to a nice new purpose-designed building, you could, if you are not careful, lose all of the spirit of quirkiness and spontaneity and creativity and suddenly look too much like anybody else’s place. We’re not keen to suddenly become a slick place. So how do you work that trick?


Warren Seamans made an analogy between visiting museums and seeing live theater, insofar as museums are spaces for human interaction. Visitors encounter not only physical objects, but also engage with the curators and museum staff.

JD: Theatre is a good analogy in many ways, not least because since the Second World War, there have been frequent anxieties that face-to-face culture was under threat from new media. The big fear in the post-war period was TV. People really felt concerned about the future of everything that takes people out of the home—whether it’s theater or movies, or whether it’s museums or continuing education. Would people go to classes anymore in the evening in their spare time if they could get something from TV?

The interesting thing is that all of these fears, one after the other, have proven unfounded. During the post-war period, attendance at these other things has grown alongside the growth of new media. If you look at museum attendance in the western world over the last fifty years, it’s just gone up alongside all these other media. So, there’s something about museums – about live, face-to-face culture – that is fundamental.


Because of David Adjaye’s theme, the future of museums, could you share your thoughts on what are some of the perennial attributes of museums?

JD: To me the fundamental thing about a museum is that it’s a meeting space. It’s a place to which people come; the metaphors of forum, and agora, and meeting ground all come naturally to museum people. When I first went to work in a museum, I couldn’t get over the fact that all these people came every day. All you had to do was open your doors and they came pouring through. Wow. Where else is this true? That to me is close to the heart of it. How you curate space, or manage a place in the interests of certain kinds of creative and cultural encounters, is endlessly changing, but there’s no let up of demand for that kind of engagement.


On his recent visits to MIT, David Adjaye discussed the civic dimension to architecture—the importance of taking into account the city itself and its evolution when planning a building. What kind of public space do you think Kendall Square needs?

JD: I agree with that, but I think there’s also a convergence between that sort of civic-minded approach and what you might call institutional interest. I’ve spent my whole career with one foot in the academy at different universities and one foot in the community. I’ve come to feel that it’s really crucial to the long-term health and welfare of universities that they have really healthy relationships with their extended communities.

Kendall Square obviously is a historically significant technology district. Even in my time here, it’s moved clearly through several phases in its development, and it’s visibly transforming again. I see us as having some considerable responsibility to be one of the cultural anchors in Kendall—something that is explicitly helping to make Kendall a more community friendly and a more articulate place, a place that’s better at expressing what it is.

AN: And we are starting to plan and experiment to build those relationships now. We’re not waiting to move into the new building. We have at least four years here of programs, so we are already thinking about relevant themes or topics and how we can change our current physical space to start attracting that audience and build excitement for our future museum as a community venue.


Could you give some examples of topics that may appeal particularly to the biotech community and other demographics at Kendall Square?

AN: Our (MIT’S) overwhelming strength is in the sciences and technology. So that’s an interesting opportunity for us because this museum historically, like MIT historically, has been renowned for the engineering disciplines, aerospace and robotics. They’re all still very important, but alongside them has grown a leadership in life sciences and biotechnology. For some time now, we’ve been looking to interpret those developments. There’s much more we can do to articulate the implications of these innovations for the future of our society. There’s also MIT’s growing profile at the intersection of materials sciences, design and computational sciences. This cross-disciplinary set of collaborations is something that we can bring forward now, in a series of design experiments, because that’s also of core interest to that audience at Kendall.


Is it premature to talk about the architecture itself?

JD: Well it’s early days, but architects are already employed. We’ll be part of a much larger podium building. There’ll be a distinct footprint on the ground. The first three floors of the building will have one character, but then coming off that podium will be a much taller tower of fourteen or fifteen floors. The tower piece will be commercial office space, but the podium will be the museum. It will sit right on the Gateway that’s being planned for Kendall, adjacent to the MIT Kendall T-stop. We don’t know the details of that design yet, and it’s a bit premature to say anything specific, but we want it to be very clearly an MIT space and very clearly a public space.

AN: We want it to breathe accessibility and openness. Architecturally, that gets expressed through transparency of what can you see that’s going on in the museum, day or night. How do we become that venue that makes you look twice and also is a gathering place? One side of the building, which will have a green space, is designed to be welcoming to students. The other side will be responsive to the urban streetscape on Main Street.


I gathered from Warren Seamans, that the game for decades was simply to acquire more square footage. Thinking about the ideal space was not an option.

AN: The space we’re moving into is not a significant expansion, although we will be able to do more things. We are thinking of how to use the space wisely, but by no means does that answer all our facility issues. We’re trying to understand what are the most important things that we do to serve the public that are going to be featured in Kendall Square.

JD: The museum will have to be bigger from the visitors’ point of view and that’s the plan. But the total square footage that we occupy won’t be significantly bigger. That can only mean that the back of house spaces that we currently have here will be far smaller in Kendall. So we have to have other space. And we’re already in discussion about where and how we do that. The rationale is that space in Kendall is at a premium. It’s very expensive, so we only put in Kendall what really needs to be there, and the functions that can be served elsewhere equally well should probably be elsewhere. So we will continue to be multi-site. It’s just that our headquarters facility and the principal visitor base will be in Kendall.