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A Monetary Memory

Ruth Miller

By last spring, the Class of 2005 addressed a great student need with their choice of gift to the Institute — a student lounge in the old cashier’s office. The notion of a central social space was well-received, and details of the future space were printed on the front page of The Tech. This plan included a glass-etched memorial to the current dollar mural. People read and acknowledged the memorial, but somehow, the concept of replacing (and therefore removing the mural) didn’t quite click with anyone.

The dollar mural is a campus landmark, but it’s not a Stata, or a Simmons, or even a Kresge (which I imagine might have been revolutionary when it was built). The mural is eye-catching for its display of skill, level of detail, and sheer size, not for its ground-breaking originality. It’s a borrowed design, after all. Yet somehow, the mural is a spectacle for everyone passing by it on their first trip down the Infinite. And when Susan Hockfield became president, the mural’s temporary update served as an easy front-page picture for the campus and alumni newspapers.

What is even more impressive is that the mural was made by students. Sure, Frank Gehry can make a big impression on campus, but the dollar mural was painted by members of the Class of 1970. Some of the best pieces of MIT folklore are the ones that students created. Yes, MIT is making leaps and bounds in almost every field of scientific research, but there are more tangible aspects of MIT’s history that we can appreciate: every time we walk along Harvard Bridge with Mr. Smoot; when we walk across Killian after a hack on the Great Dome; when we walk along the Infinite Corridor and see the dollar mural.

The original plans for the student lounge intended to memorialize the mural with a glass etching. The obvious questions seem to be: why memorialize something when that would require its destruction, and why not just leave it there? The idea of memorializing the mural is a nice gesture, but a glass etching wouldn’t convey the same impression as the image that’s there now. Sure, anyone can pay to have a dollar etched into glass, but ours is hand-painted, by students. It’s ironic that glass often symbolizes “cold,” because that’s exactly what an etching would be. A glass etching of a dollar would just be another attempt by MIT to make its campus more modern, but unlike the Stata Center or Simmons, this wouldn’t provide much needed office or living space — it would come at the cost of a piece of history. The mural represents more than the presence of a cashier’s office, which is all a glass etching could convey.

From an architectural standpoint, a glass wall in the Infinite does make some sense. But often, architects must work around the historic space that they are assigned. Sure, glass would let in more light, but how much light is going to come into the room from the Infinite Corridor? And while glass might make the space seem more inviting and social, there’s always the chance that a well-designed space will be inviting by itself.

It is possible that deep down, most students, undergraduate and graduate, think replacing the mural is a bad idea. Yet when the plans were announced last spring, there was little public outcry. Not until the late fall did one of my Undergraduate Association senators e-mail our dormitory looking for feedback, and even then, I don’t know what became of my comments. It seems that the Committee for the Review of Space Planning thought students wouldn’t mind the mural’s removal, and perhaps they wouldn’t. But if they do, then the absolute silence on the issue is shocking. Do we, as students, not know how to display disapproval?

In 11.015 “Riots, Strikes, and Conspiracies,” you can get HASS-D and CI-H credit for learning about how a group of Columbia students with far too little homework and visions of a democratic society occupied several buildings for over a week in 1968. If you listen carefully, you can learn that MIT had its own riot the next year. And if you read old issues of The Tech from the 1970s, you can learn that students all over East and West Campus rioted over poor-quality food on mandatory dining plans and tuition hikes by lighting a trail of gas across Memorial Drive and throwing things at the cops from the top floors of Baker. I’m not saying this kind of behavior is appropriate, but it’s a stark contrast to a student body that doesn’t even blink at plans to remove a school landmark.

Fortunately, there are easier, more legal ways to create change. We all know how easy it is to get a flame war started on an e-mail discussion group, because it’s easy to write an e-mail while you’re sitting at your computer all day. Spam your UA senator. Spam the UA. Heck, spam The Tech (letters@tt.mit.edu). Spam the Committee for the Review of Space Planning. If you choose to write President Hockfield (hockfield@mit.edu), it might be best to do so respectfully. And if that doesn’t work, MIT students have woken up early once (or more likely stayed up really late) to meet construction workers at a site and protest its destruction. Maybe we could do it again.