Science & Research

Museum director promotes collaboration

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, April 13, 2012

Correction appended.

John Durant, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum, spoke Thursday evening about the challenges that science museums face in reaching out to scientists. He advocated the creation of a collaborative effort to combat those obstacles. 

His lecture, held in Smith-Buonanno 106, was entitled “Collecting the Genome: Or how can we preserve a record of contemporary scientific culture.” Durant, recently called “the cheerleader of science” by the New York Times, presented the MIT museum’s current work, which initiated the Museum Genomics Consortium, an international effort of museums to collect technologies on genomics. The consortium’s ultimate goal is to organize an international exposition that will travel from museum to museum.

Durant “started the most widely ambitious set of programs,” said Steve Lubar, director of the public humanities and cultural heritage center.

“My mission is making research and innovation accessible to all,” Durant said. “We have a target audience – middle and high school students, adults and the MIT community – but we are not a family attraction,” Durant said.

Founded in the 1970s, the museum has more than one million artifacts on topics including architecture and design, holography and most importantly, Durant said, science and technology. The museum receives 100,000 to 150,000 visitors annually­­­­­­­­­­. A­ third are international visitors who are mostly drawn to the museum while touring MIT.

The museum is a bridge between science, culture and MIT and plays a key role in scientific communication, Durant said.

“The challenge of the museum is then to be able to represent a wide diversity of areas,” he said. One of Durant’s main goals is to reach out to scientists and make them participate directly in communicating their research.

“We want to allow researchers to tell their own stories by themselves,” Durant said.

Science and technology grew tremendously throughout the 20th century and is still expanding, Durant said. But museums have a hard time putting together exhibits on new technologies. The museums must choose from a large pool of scientific artifacts, some of which, like nanomaterials, pose a problem of size.

Moreover, Durant explained the challenge of developing a “museum culture.”

“Science is highly collaborative and often international, but it is not the style of museums,” Durant said. “There is a competitive relationship between museums, which is not a match with the highly collaborative feature of scientific work,” Durant said.

Another problem is getting scientists to participate in the collection of their old artifacts. “They are often relatively uninterested in the material culture of their own practices. They are not actively engaged when we ask them to participate in the conservation of objects,” Durant said.

Consequently, the challenge for science museums is to develop a way of reaching out to scientists. 

For that purpose, Durant is putting together a test case on genomics. It is a technique-driven science, which has a material culture and is highly collaborative and international. Durant’s goal is to establish an effective social network among museums and to start a museum genomics consortium with various institutions in North America and in Europe. These include the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, the National Museum of American History in Washington, the Whipple Museum in Cambridge and the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris. Because of the competitive culture among museums, if some science museums participate in this collaborative effort, others around the world will be tempted to join the collaboration, he said.

To make this genomic collection effort possible, the MIT museum needs proactive, international collaboration, Durant said. “We work closely with the MIT Archives and talk to a lot of genomics people. We have to use the collective knowledge of genomics technology,” Durant said.

The approach of museums is not to give labs protocols for collecting genomic materials, but to connect with them and “make them pick-up the phone before putting things in the dumpster and let museums come to take a look at it.”

 

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Canada Science and Technology Museum is located in Toronto. In fact, it is in Ottawa, Ontario. The Herald regrets the error.