Friday, November 26, 2010

10 Top Tech Museums

1. Research Immersion

MIT Museum

Cambridge, Mass.

Opened: 1971
Visitors last year: about 80,800

The museum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's main campus serves as a window to the school's wide range of research projects. This year's scheduled exhibits include robotic underwater exploration, a compact urban concept car, and a look inside cancer research using the molecular genetic model of zebra fish. The museum's “public soapbox” events give MIT researchers a chance to discuss current issues and solicit involvement in ongoing studies. “We're trying to bridge the gap between the current research itself and the science that's done and dusted,” says museum director and MIT professor John Durant.

2. The Wings of Man

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum


Opened: 1976
Visitors last year: about 5,230,000

Where else but the National Air & Space Museum can visitors, in a single glance, view the Spirit of St. Louis, the first plane to make a solo nonstop transatlantic flight (1927); the Bell X-1, the first plane to exceed the speed of sound (1947); and SpaceShipOne, which made the first privately funded human space flight in 2004? To make the subject even more relevant to a 21st-century audience, the Smithsonian has installed video kiosks that let users explore 360-degree models of each object. The museum is also in the process of archiving every artifact in its collection on its Web site, available free to the public.

3. No Mainstream Museum

Museum of the Moving Image

Astoria, N.Y.

Opened: 1988
Visitors last year: about 95,000

Curators at the Museum of the Moving Image are embracing the digital media of the YouTube-watching, video-game-playing generation, in addition to traditional film and television. Visitors can create their own movie soundtrack; play Space Wars, one of the first video games ever made (it predates Pong); and encounter the Yoda puppet from The Empire Strikes Back. This year the museum will open the doors to a virtual reality cave, where the walls are wrapped in a stereoscopic video projection. “We don't rely on a museum-going audience to come to our museum,” says the museum's deputy director and curator of digital media, Carl Goodman: “The nontraditional subject brings in nontraditional visitors.”

4. Revisit the Exhibit

Tech Museum of Innovation

San Jose, Calif.

Opened: 1990
Visitors last year: 325,000

At “The Tech” in the heart of Silicon Valley, state-of-the-art technology isn't just the subject—it's the method of delivery. No heavyweight handhelds here. As they come through the door, guests are given a light UPC-branded wristband that keeps track of visited exhibits. Once home, the museum-goer can log on to the museum's Web site and download related information onto a home computer.

5. Computing Age Dinosaurs

Computer History Museum

Mountain View, Calif.

Opened: 1996 (current incarnation)
Visitors last year: over 45,000

Anyone who wants a glimpse of computing in the era before laptops and Palm Pilots—when computers were hunks of wires, tubes, and metal that filled entire rooms—need go no further than the Computer History Museum. There visitors can tour some 13,000 artifacts of the computer's past, including the 1944 ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which houses 18,000 vacuum tubes; German enigma coding machines used in World War II; and the Cray-2 supercomputer shown here, built in 1984 and used for nuclear weapons research by the U.S. government. The newest addition, “Mastering the Game: A History of Computer Chess,” features interactive chess consoles and a portion of the storied Deep Blue chess computer.

6. Are You Experienced?

Experience Music Project


Opened: 1999
Visitors last year: 451,792 (includes visits to adjacent Science Fiction museum)

When Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen wanted to display his extensive collection of Jimi Hendrix-owned guitars, he dropped $60 million on a Frank Gehry-designed museum. Experience Music Project, as its name suggests, relies heavily on technology to explore the music of such diverse artists as Bob Dylan and Bing Crosby. Every visitor is given a handheld device that uses a touch screen, images, and video to provide a multimedia-guided tour. In the “Sound Lab,” aspiring musicians can jam on keyboards and guitars that light up to show you how to play or check out the Jam-O-Drum, an electronic surface designed for collaborative musical improvisation.

7. Spy Tech

International Spy Museum


Opened: 2002
Visitors last year: over 700,000

From invisible ink to buttonhole cameras to night-vision goggles, it's all on display at the International Spy Museum, one of the most popular attractions on the National Mall in recent years. Executive Director Peter Earnest says the museum employs technology to explain technology. Visitors to the interactive “School for Spies” can simulate aerial surveillance missions over Soviet shipyards and those who stop in at the soon-to-be-opened “Operation Spy” will be able to team with others in a top-secret mission of audio decryption, safecracking, and polygraph testing.

8. Fantastic Voyage

Science Fiction Museum & Hall of Fame


Opened: 2004
Visitors last year: 451,792 (includes visitors to adjacent Experience Music Project)

In the building annexed to the Experience Music Project and in the shadow of Seattle's Space Needle lives another Paul Allen project, the Science Fiction Museum. Artifacts from the fantastic high-tech worlds of Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas, and Arthur C. Clarke—all members of the museum's advisory board—along with other futurists are brought to life in galleries labeled "Homeworld," "Fantastic Voyages," "Brave New Worlds," and "Them!" “Our audience expects a combination of storytelling and entertainment features,” says senior curator Jacob McMurray.

9. All About Androids

Robot Museum

Nagoya, Japan

Opened: 2006
Visitors last year: NA

Visitors to the Robot Museum in central Japan may think they've stepped into the future. From memorable androids like Robbie the Robot (of Forbidden Planet fame) to a modern robot that looks like a seal, the newly built complex houses hundreds of walking, talking, thinking, reading, and playing machines and thousands of videos, photographs, and examples of robot memorabilia. In the “Robothink” exhibit, visitors can try their hand at operating a mechanical creature.

10. This Is Not a Test

Museum of Broadcast Communications


Opened: 1987-2003; reopening 2007
Visitors expected in first year after reopening: 200,000 to 250,000

When Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications reopens after a four-year hiatus in a new downtown building, curators hope a bold new direction will wow the public. Visitors will make their first stop at the Media Cafe' (rendering shown), where individual computer consoles help sort through 85,000 hours of radio and television content dating from the 1950s. When they tune in to an area of interest, they may proceed to one of eight exhibit areas divided by genre—comedy, drama, music variety, children's shows, talk shows, news, sports, and game/reality shows—to discover artifacts, supporting audio and video material, and functioning radio and TV studios.

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