Art and Fun at the MIT Museum

CNC Newspapers, September 2000

Have you ever seen a machine controlled by a chicken wishbone? Have you ever been inside a giant maze toy controlled by a computer, rolling a marble while trying to dodge holes? Or transformed yourself into a robot?

You can at the MIT Museum. This small gem tucked into a nondescript building at 265 Mass Avenue in Cambridge is a wonderful place for a family excursion on a weekend day. Indeed, on the weekends, nearly 60% of the Museum’s visitors are familes, according to Kathleen Thurston-Lighty, Publicity and Marketing Manager of the Museum. With exhibits like “F.A.S.T. Sunday” (Family Adventures in Science and Technology), kids and parents have the opportunity to work, learn from, and have fun with MIT researchers from various fields. On the last weekend of October the F.A.S.T. exhibit will be “Robots and Beyond,” an exploration of artificial intelligence, where museum-goers can “transform [themselves] into a cyborg, android, or robot,” according to Ms. Thurston-Lighty. On January 28, the F.A.S.T. exhibit will be about hurricanes, global warming, the planets, and the atmosphere, exploring questions like, “What is it like to fly into a cyclone?” and “What, exactly, is that giant red spot on Jupiter?” Each month, the F.A.S.T. exhibits offer something unusual for exploration and experimentation.

Not everything at the MIT Museum is strictly science, however. The ongoing Arthur Ganson sculpture exhibit is a place where mechanics, art, and humor come together. Ms. Thurston-Lighty describes the work of Arthur Ganson as “viewer-activated or driven by electric motors, [and] driven by a wry sense of humor or a probing philosophical concept.” With names like “Machine with Wishbone” or “Child and a Ball,” the machine-sculptures amuse and amaze. Smithsonian Magazine’s David Simms says, “Kids love Machine with Wishbone because it’s funny, odd, and ingenious. Many adults, on the other hand, see pathos and tragedy as the enslaved little bone drags the clanking contraption behind it. Rube Goldberg meets Jean-Paul Sartre.” There are also devices whose sole purpose is to raise a cup of grease to a certain point, then spill it neatly back into the tray from which it came, and so on. The kids wait for the machine to make a mistake and a huge mess, but it never does.

The museum has other ongoing exhibits similar to the Arthur Ganson, in that they blend aspects of science or technology with art, and there are hands-on features in every room. There are the works of inventor Harold “Doc” Edgerton (1903-1990) which include a “shadow catcher screen,” which freezes an image on a screen by using a stroboscopic flash. Next door to the Arthur Ganson is an exhibit on holography, which has some 1500 very beautiful holograms. Replacing the MathSpace exhibit is the “Thinkapalooza,” which includes many hands-on items such as a Lego raceway, a human maze, and a Tubers and Zots area for the youngest visitors.

The MIT Museum has something for everyone. Even the most right-brain of people will have a great time there. It’s a bargain at just $5 for adults, $2 for kids, open Tuesday-Friday 10-5, Saturday-Sunday 12-5, and never seems crowded. “Just come through the door,” Ms. Thurston-Lighty says. You don’t have to be a nerd to enjoy it!