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Tearing down metaphoric walls to expand museum's programming

Patti Richards, senior communications officer in the News Office, asked incoming museum director John Durant to discuss his views on the role of the museum in the community.

Q. How would you describe the relationship between the MIT Museum and the larger Boston community?

A. The relationship between a university and its local community is vitally important. Ideas and innovations produced at MIT will have a huge impact on the way we live in the 21st century. We have a responsibility to explain current scientific developments and to engage interested citizens in informed debate about their wider social implications. I would like the museum to provide exhibitions and a new kind of public forum where scientists, students and citizens can meet to discuss some of the most important questions we face in common--locally, nationally and globally.

Q. How would this new public forum work?

A. We need to literally think out of the box. People talk a lot these days about "museums without walls," and it's time we made them happen. For example, we could bring scientists and citizens together, sometimes physically, by inviting scientists to come and talk about their work, and sometimes virtually, by connecting scientists and citizens remotely with the help of new communication technologies. People in Cambridge can be linked by webcam, webcast or video-conference with the scientists and scientific events, wherever these may happen to be.

Q. Will the MIT Museum launch programs to reach adults in addition to children?

A. MIT is an ideal base from which to engage older students and adults. Science museums in the U.K. have already launched such programs. AT-Bristol, the science center which I directed, ran highly successful public lecture programs, including live link events where audiences in Bristol interacted with a gorilla being trained in sign language in California.

Q. How do you compare the U.K. and the U.S. in terms of public engagement in science?

A. Both the U.K. and the United States are generally very interested in science, and both are also pretty positive about the role of science in society. But each culture has distinct sensitivities about particular areas of science. In recent years, many Brits have been reluctant to accept new genetic technologies in agriculture (so-called "GM foods"), whereas many Americans have been reluctant to accept human stem cell research. Also, at present, the British government seems more concerned about global climate change than does the American government.

Q. You will serve both as museum director and as a lecturer in the Program in Science, Technology and Society. How will you link the two roles?

A. I'll be teaching some courses in STS on public understanding of science, and I will encourage my students to apply what they learn by undertaking communications projects in the museum. The MIT Museum might serve as a kind of laboratory in which students can hone their skills as science communicators.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 16, 2005 (download PDF).

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