MIT Museum to Unveil $3 Million Renovations

A $3 million expansion of the MIT Museum, the first step in a long-term plan to improve the museum, will be unveiled on Sept. 29.

The renovated area, which gives the museum a new ground level with 5,000 square feet of additional space, will be devoted to the Mark Epstein Innovation Gallery, which will contain small changing exhibits so that current research and innovations can readily be seen.

MIT Museum Director John R. Durant said that the renovation was largely about “bringing the museum to the street.” The museum, which is currently located on the second floor of N52, is not as welcoming as it will be once there is a street-level entrance, he explained. “It all starts with the mission to be a bridge, but we can’t be a bridge between MIT and the greater community if no one knows we’re here,” Durant said.

According to the 2005–2006 MIT Reports to the President, half of the funds for the $3 million expansion were provided by two alumni and three members of the advisory board, with MIT’s Commitee for the Review of Space Planning Fund matching that donation.

The expansion process involved gutting and renovating the ground floor of the museum building, which previously housed MIT offices. Full-length windows have been placed on the museum front to draw people into the museum with displays.

The museum will now have a larger store, a self-service food area, and a larger admissions and information desk. Durant hopes that this will help the museum, which has traditionally been “light on visitor services” to be able to “provide what the museum visitor of the 21st century expects.”

As a part of the museum’s expansion, it will be offering new programs and exhibits. “We are a museum, first and foremost, of research and innovation,” Durant said. Durant continued to explain that permanent galleries are not enough to deal with the changing pace of the many new innovations going on at MIT.

Three main innovations will be present upon the opening of the gallery: MIT Media Lab’s City Car, an environmentally friendly and stackable electric car that can be used as an energy storage battery for the city when not in use; the MIT and the Sea: Pioneers in Ocean Exploration exhibit, which will include the remotely operated vehicle, Jason Junior, which took photographs of the Titanic wreckage; and the Zebrafish exhibit, which will display recent cancer research at MIT that utilized zebrafish.

Located within the new gallery is MIT 360, the museum’s new activity area. MIT 360 will include a variety of new programs including Soap Box, a program in which scientists and engineers will host evening discussions, and Lab-Link, an interactive program which provides live video-links into laboratories throughout the MIT campus.

Museum wants more space

Durant said that the current expansion to the ground floor is only the first step in achieving a long term goal “to create a new MIT Museum.” Durant explained that the museum started small and low profile and was not doing what it should be doing as a representative of MIT. Durant said that the museum should be “working to bridge the gap between MIT and the much larger community.”

The long-term goal involves increasing the amount of space available to the MIT Museum. The addition of the ground floor increased the available space by 50 percent, Durant said. However, taking into account the Hart Nautical Gallery and Compton Gallery which are located within the MIT campus, and the two storage spaces that are currently housing excess exhibits, the museum needed to increase the available space by 300 percent.

The initial end date for the long-term renovations to the museum was 2011, which would coincide with MIT’s 150th anniversary. However, Durant said that the museum has identified three options for expansion and has not come to a decision on which course of action to take. All of the options will take several years for completion, Durant said.

The three options are to occupy more of the museum’s current buildings, to move into the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse owned by MIT, or to construct a new on-campus building for the museum.

The problem with expanding within the current site is that spaces are in old industrial buildings which would require many renovations, according to Durant. Also, many of the current tenants would have to move, which would force MIT to find new offices for the departments occupying those spaces.

One alternative is to move into the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse which is owned by MIT and located on the corner of Vassar Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Durant said that this building was identified because it met all of the requirements needed for the museum: it is in a key strategic location, it is large enough, and it does not have many windows, which is good for museum exhibitions created in the absence of natural light for preservation and display purposes.

The third option — moving into a new building — would require a construction site that is suitable for a museum, which Durant said is difficult to find on the MIT campus.

Durant said that getting into the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse would be the most ideal solution, while steadily expanding the buildings that currently house the museum would be the second most feasible option. Durant said the third option is difficult to analyze because no feasible plans have been drafted and because there is large competition for construction sites on the MIT campus.

Durant explained that location is a key factor in determining the future of the museum because “the museum needs to be a gateway position.” This “gateway position”, Durant explained, needs to be a place that is easily accessible to the MIT family, the visitor to MIT, and the greater community. Durant added that there are not many gateway positions available because it would need to be on the Massachusetts Avenue corridor between Central Square and the Charles River.

Durant said that none of the options for the museum’s long term goals would be cheap. “We’re not recommending it because it would be cheap; we’re recommending it because it is needed.”

MIT Museum hosts open house

The museum will be hosting an open house with free admission Sept. 29 and 30 to kick off the unveiling of the ground floor. Visitors can expect a variety of activities, demonstrations, food vendors, talks by curators and researchers, shows by jugglers, and a special appearance by the “Logarithms,” MIT’s acapella group. Front Street will be closed down for the music and entertainment. In addition, the first 50 people at the ribbon cutting ceremony at 10 a.m. on Sept. 29 will receive a prize.