MIT Museum captures Polaroid treasures

The museum gets a donated archive covering 70 years of Polaroid history--every make and model of commercially produced Polaroid camera, plus ephemera and much more.

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Leslie Katz
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The MIT Museum in Cambridge, Mass., has hit Polaroid pay dirt, scoring a collection of classic Polaroid products and prototype designs spanning 73 years just as Polaroid flashes forward with a new instant camera.

The archive, donated by PLR IP Holdings, owner of the Polaroid brand, contains every make and model of commercially produced Polaroid camera, from the famous Polaroid Model 95 (which went on sale in 1948 as the first viable instant-picture camera) to early digital models. In addition, the collection includes myriad experimental models and prototypes that never made it to market.

Curator Deborah Douglas explores an early instant camera, the Polaroid Model 95A, one of the artifacts just donated to the MIT Museum (click to enlarge.) Mark Ostow, courtesy MIT Museum

Also among the more than 9,000-plus donated artifacts: rare Polarized glasses dating from the 1939 World's Fair; original newsprint sketches by Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land; a historic bellows camera the size of a filing cabinet; early movie projectors; a Polaroid copier; and some of the first automobile headlights that incorporated polarizing materials.

There's plenty of ephemera, too--filters, flash cubes, camera bags, and special holders for Polaroid ID photos.

Land, the Cambridge scientist and inventor best known as the father of the instant camera, had a special affiliation with MIT, having been a visiting professor there and the originator of the idea for MIT's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which cultivates and supports research partnerships between MIT undergraduates and faculty. Land died in 1991.

"Polaroid is a company that both shaped, and was shaped by MIT," said Deborah Douglas, the MIT Museum's curator of science and technology. "This collection is of major significance to the MIT Museum not only for its intrinsic technical and historical value, but also because of Edwin Land's strong connections with MIT."

The MIT Museum plans to display some of the newly acquired artifacts in June. Plans for a major exhibition are being discussed.

Not far from the MIT Museum, Harvard Business School's Baker Library houses another major Polaroid trove--hundreds of thousands of documents, including vintage ads, annual reports, and patent records from the Polaroid archives. The Polaroid art collection, which includes photographs taken by prominent 20th-century photographers such as Ansel Adams, is expected to be auctioned by Sotheby's this year.

Of course, Polaroid enthusiasts who can't afford high-end auction goods can always pay tribute to the iconic brand by displaying a ceramic Polaroid or lighting a Polaroid candle.