Meet John Durant - The Mark R. Epstein (Class of 1963) Director, MIT Museum

September 19, 2022

With weeks to go until the opening of the new MIT Museum on October 2 and the Cambridge Science Festival from October 3-9, we caught up with John Durant, Director of the MIT Museum and founder of the Festival. Under Durant’s ambitious and determined stewardship, both have out-grown their homes, relocated, and will soon relaunch to the Cambridge community.

 

Interviewer: Firstly, let’s talk about the MIT Museum’s new site, opening on October 2. Tell us about the move, the design, and the philosophy behind the new space.

John Durant: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the old MIT Museum – we were in a former radio factory, and the building had never been designed to be a museum. We made the best of it, but there were all sorts of ways in which the old museum was limited, and we out-grew it. An opportunity arose for us to relocate to a new building that was to be constructed in a region of Cambridge called Kendall Square, which is right on the edge of the MIT campus. Kendall Square is a world-significant technology district and it has grown up because much of it is a spin-off from, or closely related to, MIT. 

MIT was conceiving a new gateway to the campus, and we were invited to come and occupy one of the two pillars of the gateway. The new location is, as they say, to die for. The museum by its nature is an interface to the institution – we stand conceptually between MIT and the wider community, and now we are physically located between MIT and the wider community.

Being involved in the design of our part of the building means that we’ve got a purpose-built, three-floor museum, with the right ceiling heights, with the sorts of spaces that we wanted, and then of course there was the little matter of saying, “Well, let’s think about the contents!” We had to plan from the ground up what we wanted to display and why we wanted to display it – and all of that has just been an enormous opportunity for us. 

When I first came to Cambridge, which is some years ago now, I was very struck that the amount of science and technology per square foot of the city was just enormous. There are three universities and endless science-based companies and activities, but if your job didn’t involve working in one of these, you could walk around and not even know that you were surrounded by all this stuff. So our aim from the beginning was to try and use the Museum and the Festival to celebrate and make visible, make accessible in the community, things that were already there but that wasn’t necessarily available.

I: This year’s festival focuses on the overlap between science and the arts as well as science and the environment and other related fields. Are we moving away from the school-taught notion that subjects are separate, individual disciplines, towards a more cohesive understanding of subjects and the world?

JD: I think it is right to break down barriers. One of the big advantages of the informal sector that I work in – I’m contrasting what we do in museums and science centers with what is done typically in schools and colleges – is that we can ignore curriculum, and we can ignore curricular boundaries, and we can go for issues, or topics, or themes, which seem to be relevant or interesting. That’s partly why you see our festival tending to go for things like “Science and Art”, or for a subject like fashion – it provides entry points for a conversation about science and technology, which I’m really interested in cultivating.

I: You’ve been at MIT for almost 20 years, when you joined the internet was in its infancy, whereas now it’s hard to imagine almost any aspect of life without it. How has this changed science, science communication and museums?

JD: Museums have always been to some degree or other multimedia institutions, but until the last 20 years or so, when they talked ‘multimedia’ they were talking about physical displays, plus video, plus audio, and so on. And now the whole realm of digital media has just blossomed, and suddenly you have new ways of reaching your audience. One of the things we have paid a lot of attention to in the new museum is trying to up our game digitally. The relationship between the physical museum and the virtual museum (for example, through our new museum website) is hugely important, because increasingly the audiences we serve are used to getting ideas and information as much online as anywhere else.

Digital media are a very good example of the pervasiveness of science and technology, but they also raise all kinds of issues – we have a whole gallery in the new museum which is about computing and AI, and partly it’s designed to address some of the questions that are being raised in this field: questions like algorithmic bias, our tendency to assume that if something is digital and algorithmic, it must be objective – well, not so much. We have a whole section on so-called Deep Fake technologies, where people are using sophisticated learning machines to produce fake video content of things that never really happened. We’re now faced with the challenge of helping people navigate through a digital landscape where it is increasingly not obvious which of the things that are being viewed are “real” and which of them are actually intended to deceive.

Retaining one’s credibility as a trustworthy organization is really crucial. We’ve been living through a period of populist politics – in the United States, but also elsewhere in the world – in which truth and plain-speaking are not necessarily highly regarded values. It’s not a thing I think America has been particularly used to: being in a situation where the validity of science in a particular space may well be questioned, or simply not recognised, or not acknowledged, and scientists may be shouted down in conversations where they actually have something to say. So these are new challenges we face, and the science festival community, which is global, or at least very pervasively international, really needs to step up and find ways of communicating that are relevant to these new situations.

I: Looking forward, what do you expect for the MIT Museum and CSF over the next 5 or 10 years?

JD: The museum of course is wholly new, and our big challenge I think is to not view the opening as the end of things but as the beginning of things. And we have this whole new set of splendid resources which we’re lucky enough to have brought together here, and our task now is to make good use of them. I’ll give you just one example – at the heart of the new Museum, we’ve invested a lot not just in new galleries and exhibitions, but in new spaces for face-to-face communication. The biggest of these spaces is a place called The Lee Family Exchange. It’s a rather dramatic space, seating about 100 (but in a very unconventional way), and it’s designed to be like the parlor or the living room of a house, a place into which you bring your guests for any number of different kinds of conversations and discussions and debates. Given the rapid changes that we’re seeing, I think we need to be willing to experiment – with new formats, new ways of engaging people, and new ways of encouraging civic discourse. We want to find ways of bridging gaps between people who are coming from very different starting points, and who may not be very comfortable even talking to each other.. In this and other ways, we are putting the emphasis on being open to change, to experiment, to trying new things, to being willing to fail. We need to learn from what we’ve done, and work out ways of doing better.

And for the Cambridge Science Festival I would say something similar. Brooke [Ciardelli, CSF Director] is introducing all kinds of new initiatives into the festival this year – things that we’ve never done before – and this is entirely the right way to go. I hope we will continue innovating, going to new places, trying new things. And I hope that sometimes we will find ourselves out of our proverbial comfort zone, doing things that don’t come so easily to us. In that way, I think we are more likely to reach new audiences. For me this is the future.


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