Chicago museum curator hunts for exhibit-worthy gadgets at CES


Museums are typically loaded with exhibits about the past. There's the first this, or the breakthrough that, and everything is quite orderly.

But not all museum exhibits follow this format. Just ask Kathleen McCarthy, director of collections and head curator at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. She'll be joining tens of thousands visitors to the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show, which runs Jan. 6-9 in Las Vegas.

Part of McCarthy's mission is to find the latest, greatest and coolest gadgets she thinks may have a spot in the museum's "Fast Forward, Inventing the Future" exhibit.

"We want it to be a platform for innovation," McCarthy said in a phone interview.

The museum was my favorite field-trip destination as a school kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs. It draws an average of 1.5 million visitors and more than a half-million students annually.

McCarthy said the contents of the Fast Forward exhibit are changed every year, just like technology changes.

"We want our audience to see what's coming in the future and introduce them to the people doing the groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting work," she said.

The exhibit is featured on the museum's site (www.msichicago.org). It includes profiles of 12 innovators responsible for the new technology.

"It's much more of a human story than people realize," she said. "When you create, develop or invent something new, there are lots of obstacles and setbacks. It takes someone with a personal drive, someone who is optimistic and has a personal passion."

The museum has a three-story modular home on its campus that will be revamped soon to add new technology.

"We have a very strong, active role in helping to advance science education," she said. "We want to really inspire students to pursue careers in math, science and engineering."

The 2010 CES was the first time McCarthy visited with the goal of finding items for the exhibit. She saw 3-D video screens, made by the French company Alioscopy (www.aliscopy.com), that don't require viewers to wear special glasses. The Fast Forward exhibit now features an Alioscopy 3-D screen.

What gadgets will get McCarthy's attention at the 2011 CES? Expect to find her spending a lot of time in booths featuring robotics and items designed for the "smart home." That means things that are "green and wired," she said.

McCarthy hopes to make visits to CES an annual event.

"I still remember the kinds of things I heard," she said. "It's the people, the presentations, the displays, the exciting new technology and the long-term connections."

It's time to plan another field trip.

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