Hidden Gems: Visiting the City’s Less Famous Sites

MIT MuseumAn interactive exhibit at the Kurtz Gallery of Photography asks visitors to envision Central Square in 2116. Photo by Emily Cassel. Story by Frederick Choi and Emily Cassel.

When you’ve lived in any area for a while, you start to run out of ideas for places to go when siblings, in-laws or old college roommates come to visit. In Greater Boston, there are the old reliables: the Science Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Harvard Art Museums. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find Cambridge has a surprising number of lesser-known galleries that are well worth a visit. Whether you’re a jaded host or a visitor yourself—or even a local who’s looking for something to do on your “staycation”—here are a few places you may not have experienced yet.

Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments
Harvard Science Center, 1 Oxford St.
Main exhibition (Room 136), M-F 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Special exhibitions (Room 251) and Foyer Exhibition Space (Room 371) M-F 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Free

Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments is a natural, outward-facing extension of Harvard’s Department of the History of Science. The main exhibit area is located on the first floor of the Science Center, just steps away from Harvard Yard. Be sure to check out the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), more succinctly known as the “Mark I,” which is prominently displayed on your way to the exhibits. The computer was one of the first of its kind and dates to 1944, when computers filled rooms rather than pockets and a real-life bug could get trapped in the system and gum up the works.

The main exhibit (Room 136) packs a ton of history into a relatively small space. After a fire destroyed the original collection, Harvard hired Benjamin Franklin himself to help rebuild it, and many of the items’ descriptions display a symbol indicating they were one of Franklin’s selections.

Many parts of the collection illustrate the speed at which technology progresses. A beautiful collection of clocks traces the evolution in timekeeping that came with the advent of trains. Previously, individual locales each had their own separate local times, but the frequency of train accidents made it clear that time would have to be standardized. Easily synchronizing time became an important, non-trivial task, which was aided by the electrical telegraph.

Many of these archaic instruments, while practical, also have a pleasing aesthetic quality about them. Sextants (used to calculate longitude and latitude), telescopes and microscopes have a shiny brass finish and a satisfying geometric design. And then there’s the Grand Orrery by Joseph Pope—an impressive mechanical model of the solar system dating to 1787 that includes bronze figures of scientists cast by Boston’s much-beloved son and silversmith, Paul Revere. (F.C.)

Hart Nautical Gallery
MIT Museum (55 Mass. Ave., Building 5)
Open daily: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Free

Cambridge residents have probably noticed the two anchors prominently displayed in front of the entrance to MIT’s Hart Nautical Gallery, but you may not know that the anchors aren’t just a bit of fanciful décor. The gallery dates back to the early 20th century and formed a connection to the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, which would become the Department of Ocean Engineering before merging with the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2005.

The bulk of the Nautical Gallery is a collection of some 40 models of ships of great variety. The British SS Turbinia (1894), which was the first to use steam-powered turbines and the fastest ship in the world for its time, is one of many examples that map technological advances in the nautical industries. The Cutty Sark (1869), aside from lending its name to a Scotch whisky, was one of the last and fastest clipper ships used in the tea trade. The Korean “turtle” warship (1591) is one of the most unique models on display, with its spiky exterior and dragon head in the front that spewed smoke in order to both mask its movements and intimidate the enemy. These—and many more—await the sea-curious adventurer.

Sails, masts, complicated crisscrossed rigging—all have been meticulously recreated to scale. Adjoining the Hart Nautical Gallery is a “Mechanical Engineering @ MIT” exhibit, which introduces the breadth of research areas the brainiacs at MIT are involved with, including nanoengineering, bioengineering and robotics. (F.C.)

Kurtz Gallery for Photography
MIT Museum (265 Mass. Ave.)
Open daily: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., $10 ($5 for students and seniors)

The Hart Nautical Gallery is part of the MIT Museum, and if it whet your appetite, you might want to consider checking out another lesser-known MIT space: The Kurtz Gallery for Photography. It’s located upstairs at the MIT Museum’s main building, but Josie Patterson, the museum’s director of marketing, says many people don’t even realize it’s there. That could be because the gallery is a relatively new addition to the list of MIT offerings—it just opened its doors in 2012. The Kurtz Gallery’s current exhibit, “Imagining New Technology,” celebrates the 100th anniversary of MIT’s move to Cambridge and features much more than just photographs. This is an interactive exhibition, with recorded interviews from lifelong Cambridge residents and a station where you can add your own 3-D printed building to a map of the city.

While you’re up there, you might as well check out some of the other less-patronized MIT Museum gallery spaces. The “Gestural Engineering” exhibit highlights the moving, interactive sculptures of Arthur Ganson. By pressing a pedal or pushing a button, visitors can watch as his works come to life. There’s a historic collection of holograms upstairs as well; the MIT Museum actually owns the world’s biggest, most comprehensive hologram collection. The Thomas Peterson Gallery houses a rotating collection of work—scientific, artistic or some combination of the two—done by current MIT students. And there’s an exhibit titled “Images of Discovery” that features the photography of Harold “Doc” Edgerton and others. Attendees can even capture their own high-speed videos and photographs.

From the Kurtz to the Peterson, Patterson explains that these gallery spaces are designed to let visitors engage with the MIT community in a physical, emotional way. “You find an MIT freshman looks not that much different than you,” she says. (E.C.)

This story originally appeared in our March/April print edition, which is available for free at more than 200 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription