In Conversation: John Durant, Director, MIT Museum

John Durant has been the director of the MIT Museum since 2004. Last fall, under his leadership, the museum unveiled its new 56,000-square-foot space, which has about thirty percent more space for galleries and exhibitions than the old museum, as well as three hundred percent more room for face-to-face interactions. PBS NewsHour visited the new museum in January, and described, among other things, the Deep Fakes exhibit—which inspired the Make-A-Fake class offered as part of the Dana Center planning stage.

During a recent interview with MIT News, Durant said, “Our job as a museum is to make what MIT does, both the processes and the products, accessible. We do this for two reasons. First, MIT's mission statement is a public service mission statement — it intends to help make the world a better place. The second reason is that MIT is involved with potentially world-changing ideas and innovations. If we're about ideas, discoveries, inventions, and applications that can literally change the world, then we have a responsibility to the world … to make these things available to the people who will end up being affected by them, so that we can have the kinds of informed conversations that are necessary in a democratic society.”

The founding editor of the quarterly peer-reviewed journal, Public Understanding of Science, Durant takes a particular interest in the intersection of science and society. As his bio page explains, he is especially concerned with public perceptions of the life sciences and biotechnology; the role of public consultation in science and technology policy-making; and the role that informal media and organizations play in facilitating public engagement. He is also an Adjunct Professor in MIT’s Science, Technology, & Society Program. 

Q: What are your takeaways from the Dana Center planning grant stage?

John Durant: We were able to do a lot of interesting things in a very short period of time, and to open up a lot of rich veins of work. That’s very encouraging, because the field of neuroscience is moving very quickly. 

During the planning process, part of our strategy was to find initiatives already under way that we could tap into. One example was the Make-A-Fake class. That grew out of a deep fake exhibit that we’d developed with Matt Groh, who became the course instructor. We’d invested a lot of time in that exhibit, and we were able to capitalize on the work we’d already done.

It’s worth saying that during the lifetime of the planning grant, a whole new generation of AI came out—tools that we weren’t necessarily able to cover in the course. At the same time, deep fakes have been developed over several years and they will be with us for a long long time, so the course will continue to be relevant for a long time.


John Durant: I was also struck by the number of people who demonstrated to me that a center for neuroscience and society is something that the MIT community wants. We heard, for example, from some of the faculty members that there is a real appetite to learn more about, and be better equipped to deal with, the intersection of neuroscience and society—particularly an appetite for the ethical issues. And more widely, outside of the realm of neuroscience, I’ve been hearing a lot about the issue of the social responsibilities that researchers have. Here at MIT, we recognize that, and our students recognize it, and yet it’s not being catered to well. The training that scientists get doesn’t give them an obvious place to put these concerns, or a way to address them. 


Q: What else stuck out for you during these five months? 

John Durant: I will give you a series of vignettes. One was hearing a bunch of sixth graders articulating a lot of interesting ideas and questions [during the McGovern Institute Tours]. I was very impressed by them. They were not at all sitting there thinking, “When do we get to go home?” They were very engaged. 

Q: Do you think their level of engagement had to do with the lessons that MIT ethicist Stephanie Bird helped to develop for their teacher ahead of time, so that they learned about the scientific ideas, terms of vocabulary, and ethical considerations they would encounter at the McGovern Institute before they arrived?  

John Durant: Yes, although it also had to do with the power of the presentations. They saw their teacher get a brain scan in an MRI—and they saw the scan. They had the chance to handle [animal] brains in the wet lab. And we had a research assistant, Chris Shallal, a double amputee, who gave a presentation about prosthetics while standing there on his artificial legs. He also interacted with the students by showing them how a basic prosthetic device, a claw, works, in the dry lab. The kids were able to ask him about his work in making prosthetics, and about his legs. That was the real thing, not just a diagram in a textbook. 


John Durant: I was also impressed by the long line of people waiting, after work, in a crowded space, to go into the After Dark event [LINK]. When you work at a museum, you never want to see a long line. But when I spoke to people lined up, they were very patient and understanding—because they knew they were going to get the real thing. 

Q: By that, do you mean they knew they would have a unique experience—an opportunity to get a memory implanted, for instance?  

John Durant: Yes, that’s right.

The Make-A-Fake class, the variety of people who took it, and their reasons for taking it, surprised me too. A couple of them were visual artists, for example, and one of them wanted to integrate some of the AI tools Matt taught about into her pottery practice, to help make her more creative. A school teacher attended the class, because she wanted to stay one step ahead of their students. I thought, “Wow, this is a really amazing group with a lot of interesting observations.” And they loved the experience, so that was rewarding.


John Durant: Then there was the class we held based around vision in art and neuroscience, attended by the people from the Perkins School for the Blind—I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. Being able to take an area of artistic practice and make it accessible through two different sensory systems [touch and sight], and to engage a blind or partially blind audience in a meaningful way, and to have so many people gain something from the experience—I had no idea we’d be able to do it. 

It made me wonder what neuroscience and society events we could do with other people who have other kinds of conditions—like people later in life, who are experiencing cognitive degeneration. We were seeing a glimpse of something much bigger that could happen.


Q: Jessie Cronan from The Perkins School said she would like to work with the museum to develop an exhibit that would simulate different manifestations of CVI, a condition that causes visual impairment, so that visitors could understand what it’s like to live with it. 

John Durant: That could be very powerful. It reminds me of an experience I had when I was much younger. I used to go to the meetings for what was then known as The British Association for the Advancement of Science, and I can still remember a talk given by a scientist about vision. He’d created a series of images, which he had put up on the screen in the auditorium, that showed how people experienced different kinds of color blindness. One showed how drapes would look to someone who could see color, and another how the drapes would look like if you had classic red-green color blindness. You couldn’t really tell if those drapes were reddish or greenish. My father had that kind of color blindness. My point is simply how memorable that was—to get a glimpse of how the world might look to other people. 

I’ve seen similar exhibits that try to represent for adults what the everyday domestic world looks and feels like for toddlers, where the chairs are too high to get into and the tables are all above your head. Experiences like that can be quite powerful. And it’s a rich possibility, given our interest in being more inclusive in relating to audiences.


Q: Did you encounter any obstacle that surprised you?

John Durant: We thought it would be completely unproblematic to have a conventional steering committee—to get a dozen or so people in a room, elicit their advice, and so on. But coordinating calendars was so challenging that we decided to talk to people one at a time. It was a less efficient use of time for Ben and me, but it was a salutary experience. We learned a lot and developed new relationships. And yet it also resulted in people saying to us, “Can we meet with the other colleagues involved?” That reminded me that we used to have graduate student evenings, during which we’d hand over the museum space so they could use it to network for the evening. And I think as part of our grant, we should throw the whole museum open now and then to neuroscience graduate students and graduate students doing relevant ELSI scholarship and say, “If you are doing anything connected to neuroscience and society and you want to find out what other people in the field are doing and connect with them, the museum will be open to you on this night.”


Q: Speaking of connecting with people, Hause Lin [LINK] noticed that the Make-a-Fake class attracted a very tech-savvy, highly-educated, relatively affluent group of people. Did you learn anything about reaching a broader audience during the planning stage? 

John Durant: The class demonstrated an issue we face anyway—that the average visitor to our museum is quite tech-savvy and highly educated. We are thinking about how to address that problem. If you simply stay in your museum, you will only ever encounter a certain group of people. That’s why science cafes, for example, have their place—because you go where the audiences are. You do science engagement and public engagement in unexpected places, to try to get beyond the constraints imposed by your physical structure. You take science to a place where science isn’t usually found. 

Another way to get beyond our walls is outreach, as we’ve been able to do through our collaboration with Professor Pawan Sinha. His work with blind children in the Prakash region of India was an entree to a relationship with the people from The Perkins School for the Blind. That’s been a powerful example. 

A third way would be to create an exhibit that can travel to other venues, with support for programmatic initiatives that would allow other locations to conduct those programs. It would be good to go beyond Cambridge, MA, which is a unique place, with a relatively narrow slice of the population, and even beyond the Boston area.  

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