Few people take an anthropological look at science, which makes Scott Globus' 3,000 photographs of MIT laboratories taken over the course of two years in the early 1980s a sizeable contribution to the field. Now, Globus has brought his work back to MIT to make it available for educational and cultural use. Forty-eight of the images are on display in the MIT Museum's Compton Gallery in "Scientific Settings: Photos of MIT Labs."
The pictures were taken during 1983-84, when Globus was finishing his undergraduate physics degree at MIT. As a visual documentation of MIT laboratories in the second half of the 20th century, it is considered the most comprehensive collection of its kind. Globus traveled from his home in California to attend the special opening for the show on Friday, Sept. 23, and spoke briefly about how the exhibition came together.
The original concept grew from Globus's conversation with Sharon Traweek, who was on the MIT faculty during the '80s with a joint appointment in the Anthropology and Archaeology Program and the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS). With Traweek's support, the project was funded by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), beginning in 1983.
Globus was mostly unhindered in his quest for laboratory photographs, although some of the work he photographed was not yet protected by patents, which raised legal concerns. Globus remembers more prominently that there was a "sense of discomfort" from the students, who were "not accustomed to seeing themselves described." Now, he says, there is greater acceptance of the "reality factor."
The exhibit challenges the stereotype of the scientific laboratory as immaculate. "We often think of the clean room as our image of science," said curator Debbie Douglas, but many of these laboratory spaces are actually quite messy, she said, typifying "what a chunk of MIT looks like all the time." Some of the prints were first displayed at MIT a month before Globus graduated in 1984, with 60 prints on exhibit in MIT libraries.
Planning for the MIT Museum show began two years ago when Globus contacted Rosalind Williams, professor of writing and director of STS, about bringing his photography back to MIT. She invited him to make a presentation in an STS colloquium last April with a talk called "Looking at Laboratories: MIT Photos From the '80s."
By that time, preparations for "Scientific Settings" were under way. UROP funded the digitization of 400 of his images, which was completed last fall by Kaya Shah, now a senior. This past summer, junior Tabitha Bonilla used the digital images to create the prints that are on display.
At the time many of the photographs were taken, Globus did not know exactly who or what he was shooting; in an effort to identify more of the subjects and laboratories, the museum is inviting visitors to use the comment books in the gallery to share any information they may have about the photos.
Globus never viewed his photography as separate or even distant from his interest in physics. "Physics is a way to understand the physical world," he said, and photography was a way for him to understand and respond to "life as an MIT student."
There have been some dramatic changes in technology over the past 20 years, as these photos show, but that human element remains essentially constant.
"Scientific Settings: Photos of MIT Labs" is on display in the MIT Museum's Compton Gallery, Room 10-150, weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Jan. 6. Admission is free.