MIT Museum to Complete $3 Million Facelift, Expansion

A passerby would be forgiven for not noticing the MIT Museum. The nondescript metal-sided building squats on an awkward corner of Massachusetts Avenue between a Korean market and a brick warehouse. Visitors must enter through a side door and climb a steel staircase, a humble porthole for a place that aims to be the institutional memory of one of the nation’s top scientific institutions.

But all that will change next month when the museum completes a $3 million expansion, knocking out the ground-floor walls and replacing them with plate glass that will literally shine light on the latest research from the MIT brain trust.

The new gallery will eschew historical exhibits to focus on cutting-edge projects including a stackable electric car, new-generation robots that explore the ocean floor, and tropical fish that are helping scientists in the search for a cancer cure. It is the brainchild of museum director John Durant, who arrived two years ago from a British science museum with frenetic energy and what he calls a bullish outlook about the ability to engage the average Joe or Jane in learning about science.

“The American public has a hugely positive attitude toward science and technology and believes them to be an important ingredient in the future of them personally and of the country,” he said. “The key is to be very straightforward, strip out all the jargon and go right to the heart of things.”

Durant has pushed to raise the museum’s public image, helping start a citywide science festival earlier this year. He is one of many science museum directors looking to dust off their collections and update them to reflect recent discoveries.

Most of the permanent exhibits on the museum’s second floor — the kinetic sculptures that flap their wings and scoop oil from troughs, the famous Muppet-like robot known as Kismet — reflect settled questions of science, Durant said. By focusing on work that is still in progress, the new addition will teach visitors about the research process. Museumgoers will be able to participate in live videoconferences with scientists in their labs, or use computer software to try to design a better remote-controlled vehicle.

Exhibits and furniture in the 5,000-square-foot hall will be small and movable, and displays will rotate each year. The space will also include a store and coffee shop. A stage will host the museum’s Soapbox lecture series, which will now be visible from the street.

“The way the museum was, on the second floor, you hardly knew it was there,” said Mark Epstein, a wireless communication company executive and one of several MIT alumni who provided the bulk of the funding for the gallery, which bears his name. “By adding on the first floor and giving it some good signage people will notice it. It’s a welcome to MIT and it’s going to brighten that section of Mass. Ave., so it’s good for Cambridge as well.”

MIT, which owns the building, provided the remaining funding for the expansion. Contractors spent 10 months gutting and renovating the space, once a dark warren of architecture studios, and will begin moving in exhibits after Labor Day. Locals can try them out at a free grand-opening party the weekend of Sept. 29 and 30.