MIT Museum Receives 70 Years of Polaroid History in Donation from PLR IP Holdings

April 12, 2010

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – April 12, 2010 — MIT Museum announced today that PLR IP Holdings, LLC (PLR), the owner of the Polaroid brand, has donated a collection of classic Polaroid products and prototype designs from its 73-year archive. On June 30, 2010, the new artistic director of the Polaroid Corporation, Lady Gaga, helped the MIT Museum celebrate this donation by having her photograph taken with a rare Polaroid 20x24 camera.

The archive of Polaroid history and artifacts contains some of the most fascinating inventions and innovations from the 20th century. 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, as well as examples of Land-designed camera prototypes, and SX-70 cameras that defined the instant photography era, are just some of the original items that the MIT Museum acquired. In June, the museum plans to display a few artifacts from this new acquisition.

Polaroid revolutionized photography through its instant camera experiences and inspired generations to share memories in a new way. With new partnerships and expansion into new product categories, Polaroid continues to deliver revolutionary products that reflect the legacy of Edwin Land.

"The MIT Museum is excited and honored to become home to one of the world’s largest and most significant corporate R&D collections," said MIT Museum Director John Durant. "MIT is the perfect repository for these diverse and fascinating artifacts embodying the exhilarating sense of discovery that defines American innovation. The MIT Museum has a number of significant corporate collections that showcase MIT as an engine of innovation and entrepreneurship in this region."

"This gift to MIT will celebrate and preserve Polaroid’s rich history of innovation and invention so that people will be able to enjoy it and learn from it for the next 70 years," said Scott W. Hardy, president of Polaroid. "We could not think of a better partner than MIT to help us achieve these goals."

From filters to flashcubes

From the famous Polaroid Model 95 (the first viable instant-picture camera) to early digital models, the collection contains every make and model of commercially produced Polaroid cameras, and myriad experimental models and prototypes that never made it to the marketplace.

In addition to glasses used by 1939 World’s Fair visitors who were introduced to the company’s Vectograph system, the precursor to 3D motion pictures, the collection contains some of the first automobile headlights that incorporated polarizing materials, and date to Edwin Land’s early years at Polaroid.

Large-scale apparatus includes a large-format bellows camera, early movie projectors, a Polaroid copier, plus examples of machines that took mug shots for driver’s licenses. The collection of more than 9,000 artifacts includes ephemera such as filters, flashcubes, camera bags and special holders for Polaroid ID photos. Rounding out the collection are several boxes of original documentary records, including hundreds of sheets documenting test results with different film, and even some sketchpads used by Land.

Coming home to Cambridge

Land, the Cambridge scientist and inventor best known as the father of the instant camera, died in 1991. He held more than 500 patents, the second highest number in history after Thomas Edison. After leaving Harvard as a freshman to develop the polarizer, he formed Land-Wheelwright Laboratories in Boston with Harvard Prof. George Wheelwright in 1932 and The Polaroid Corporation in 1937. Polaroid got attention with its Vectograph 3-D system, but it was his young daughter’s question in 1944 that would make Polaroid a household name. "Why can’t I see the picture now?" prompted the invention of instant film. The first Land camera Model 95 went on sale in 1948.

Through the years, Land cultivated many special relationships across industry, government, academia and the arts. He had a special affiliation with MIT, including the distinctive honor of being named Visiting Institute Professor. "Polaroid is a company that both shaped, and was shaped by MIT," said Deborah Douglas, curator of science and technology for the MIT Museum. "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. Land is considered the originator of the idea for MIT’s unique (and much emulated) Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP)."

Land was an enthusiastic employer of MIT faculty and alumni as well. Among those associated with Polaroid was holography pioneer Stephen Benton. In 1961, Land invited Benton to work on holography, which led to Benton’s famed discovery of the white-light transmission hologram.

The disposition of the artifacts known as the Museum Collection is one of three separate Polaroid collections. Hundreds of thousands of documents, including vintage advertisements, annual reports and patent records from the Polaroid archives were donated to Harvard’s Business School’s Baker Library in 2006. 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.

"We are grateful to PLR Holdings, LLC for this extraordinary donation," said Douglas, "but they are also proving to be enthusiastic about the inventory and cataloging of the artifacts and interested in our plans for future exhibitions." With the company’s additional support, the MIT Museum will complete its initial inventory of the collection this spring, and the entire collection will be moved to Cambridge. "We very much hope to involve Polaroid "alumni" in the cataloging and documentation of these rare artifacts and to get as much information online as soon as possible," she said. Plans for a major exhibition are under discussion.