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The Impulsive Traveler: The small university museums of Cambridge rival Boston's big galleries

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By Alexandra Pecci
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 17, 2010; 12:10 PM

A three-dimensional dog pops out at me from the wall, so lifelike that I expect it to start barking at any moment. Behind me, my mother is holding my 16-month-old daughter, Chloe, who's staring at a wall and grabbing at the air in front of her. I move over next to them and realize that she is trying to grab a hologram that's zooming out at her like a streaking red comet. I wonder vaguely whether holograms might be bad for a baby's mind.

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I guess that if there's anyone who knows the answer to that question, they'd be here at the MIT Museum, which displays Massachusetts Institute of Technology research in fields such as robotics and holography.

We're on an excursion to check out the university museums of Cambridge, a trip inspired by my grandmother's desire to revisit a museum at Harvard University where she saw glass flowers when she was in high school in the 1950s. Searching for that site online, I discovered that Cambridge has a wealth of museums, and exploring them seemed like a good pastime for a chilly New England weekend.

We start at the MIT Museum, skimming over the "Sampling MIT" exhibit of current research, which is fascinating to some people - including the 7-year-old who's apparently transfixed by a map showing the incidence of malaria around the world - but a bit dry for my taste. I'm more interested in seeing the robotics exhibit upstairs, which showcases the artificial intelligence work at the university.

Some robots look like nothing more than boxes of circuit boards and wires. Others, like the gigantic, many-jointed Minsky Arm from 1968, with tubes and wires extending down the length of it like electronic veins, resemble humans in some way. But the most famous robot in the exhibit is Kismet, which has a face that can show emotions and, according to research, elicits emotions from humans, too. Chloe waves excitedly at Kismet, as if to prove the scientists' point.

We make a brief detour to check out the model ships at MIT's Hart Nautical Gallery before heading to Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Founded in 1866, it's one of the world's oldest anthropological museums and houses thousands of artifacts from indigenous peoples the world over, with galleries devoted to Native America, Latin America and the Pacific Islands.

The extensive Native American gallery displays intricately feathered and beaded Lakota headdresses, towering totem poles from the Pacific Northwest and a collection of delicate kachina dolls. But the most interesting items to me are the ones that aren't there, the ones that hung where now hang signs reading: "Objects in this case have been removed under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act." Although the museum apparently has a good relationship with tribes - one of its current exhibits examines the "Contested West" through the eyes of the Lakota people and was co-curated by Lakota artist Butch Thunderhawk - there's a fascinating and uneasy balancing act between learning from these items and wondering just how they were obtained.

The entire museum gives me a strange and exciting Indiana Jones kind of feeling, especially the Pacific Island gallery. There, the wooden floors squeak, and dim lights illuminate rows of glass cases containing such items as a pig-tusk nose ornament from New Guinea and supernatural-looking shadow puppets from Java. With yellowing display cards next to artifacts from exotic lands, it's easy to imagine turn-of-the century adventurers coming back to Harvard to catalogue their treasures.

The next day, I visit the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, which houses the most renowned pieces from Harvard's three art museums. (The other two - the Fogg and the Busch-Reisinger - are closed for renovation until 2013.) The objects in the museum are exquisite and include ancient Islamic texts, classical Roman sculptures and works by Gauguin, Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh that hang in a beautiful gallery.

Harvard also has an extensive modern art collection that I'm afraid is lost on me. Staring at a huge Jackson Pollock painting, I'm reminded of Chloe's reaction to the Kismet robot. I guess I, too, need faces or recognizable shapes to appreciate art.

The next morning, Harvard's Museum of Natural History is swarming with kids, who press their faces against cases of meteorites and minerals - more than 5,000 specimens from around the world, sparkling like gigantic rock candy in vivid blue, glistening black, electric yellow and every other color imaginable. There's gallery after gallery of taxidermied animals from around the world, jewel-like beetles and butterflies, and nightmarishly huge crickets. The fossils and skeletons are staggering, especially the famous Harvard Mastodon; the 42-foot-long marine reptile kronosaurus; and a huge whale skeleton, complete with a curtain of black baleen hanging from its jaw.

But the highlight is certainly the glass flowers, and I watch my grandmother's lips form a little "Ooh" as she enters the gallery. "They really are as beautiful as I remember," she breathes. And they're nothing like I imagined. When I first heard the words "glass flowers," I thought they'd be big, vivid and stylized. Instead, they look like real flowers, perfect in each tiny detail. How can these be made of glass?

There are fuzzy little goldenrod blooms, wildflowers with thin clumps of roots, spindly-stemmed Mexican cosmos. The thousands of models were made beginning in 1887 by a father-and-son team of glass artisans who based their work on real specimens from around the world. "Oh, my God, Mom, look at this one," a little boy exclaims, and in row after row in the gallery, kids - and adults - ooh and ahh in disbelief that these blooms are man-made, not plucked from the ground.

The museums of Harvard and MIT are overshadowed by two huge Boston institutions that deliver art and science on a grand scale: the Museum of Fine Arts, which recently opened a new wing, and the Museum of Science. But the smaller university museums I visited are just as fascinating and just as detailed. You could spend a whole weekend here and never set foot in Boston. And believe me, you wouldn't miss a thing.

Pecci is a freelance writer in Plaistow, N.H.



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