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Viterbi Museum

March 11, 2005 —

A year after its own naming, USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering welcomed back its namesake – Andrew J. and Erna Viterbi – for Viterbi’s 70th birthday and the opening of the new Viterbi Museum in Tutor Hall.

The Viterbi Museum gallery documents the technological innovations that Viterbi pioneered. 

Approximately 200 engineers, close colleagues, students, family and friends of the Viterbis joined the couple and Dean C. L. Max Nikias in an afternoon celebration March 9 to christen the new museum.  The Viterbis made the trip from their home in San Diego, Calif., a day earlier to attend the Viterbi Conference and evening Viterbi Lecture, a keynote address that is delivered each year by a distinguished leader in information technology and digital communications.  This year’s keynote speaker was Jacob Ziv, distinguished professor of electrical engineering at Technion Israel Institute of Technology.    
”Today the USC Viterbi School begins drumming a rich new source of inspiration, a sparkling spring to refresh our spirit,” said Nikias on the steps of Tutor Hall, referring to the museum that will showcase Viterbi’s pioneering contributions to the field of digital communications. “The Viterbis don’t need a museum.  We, at USC, are the ones who need the Viterbi Museum to tell the story properly…”
“The story is about the American dream, and the blessings of freedom.  It’s about innovations in technology and teamwork, and how they have become the key to the future of civilization.  And it shows our students how their work can change the world.”
The museum, housed on the second floor of Tutor Hall, was designed by A.C. Martin and Associates, the firm that designed Tutor Hall.  Located next to the Baum Student Lounge on the southwest side of the building, the museum is divided into three rooms of display cases, artifacts, photographs, papers, mementos and a video presentation of Viterbi’s illustrious career.
The family room traces the journeys of the Viterbi and Finci families in Italy and Sarajevo prior to World War II, and each family’s struggles to reach the United States. Back-lit displays describe Erna Viterbi’s harrowing childhood of persecution in Sarajevo and Montenegro, Italy, the daughter of a Sephardic Jewish family, before the family was able to find refuge and eventually immigrate to Los Angeles.  The Viterbi family fled from Bergamo, Italy, to New York Harbor in 1938, and then Boston where young Andy Viterbi grew up. 

Impressionist Ceiling Mural 
Looking up from the center of the room, visitors will see an elliptically shaped Impressionist ceiling mural, painted with bold brush strokes by the noted Italian artist Sandro Chia.  The domical painting is a celebration of Andrew and Erna’s union, bringing together the swirl of blue sky and sea-green ocean waves as the two reach out for their futures.

A colorful swirl of blue sky and ocean green bring heaven and earth together in this joyous union scene of young Andrew and Erna Viterbi.

The mural is lit with white lights to bring out the colorful hues of blue and sea green.  The walls supporting the mural are made of Venetian plaster.
The gallery is the second and largest of the rooms, devoted to the technological innovations that Viterbi pioneered. Glass-encased displays, designed by Howard Sherman and Associates, document key moments in the young scholar’s career with photographs, papers and magazine articles about his work.
Viterbi and a handful of other prominent pioneers in satellite communication are featured on the cover of a 1958 issue of Life magazine as they studied transmissions in the control room of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite to orbit earth. Viterbi’s groundbreaking paper in 1967 describing an algorithm that would eliminate much of the interference in satellite communications at the time – the Viterbi algorithm – is also part of the collection.  Additional display cases feature many of the electronics that revolutionized cellular communications.
The gallery ceiling is meant to convey Viterbi’s fascination with the spacelessness of wireless communications.  Two “knife-edged” soffits extend outward toward the center of the ceiling, like the underside of a roof overhang, without touching each other. The soffits create a space above the ledge that is illuminated with white lights, allowing visitors to peer over and beyond the horizon.
The third room is a library, where a selection of Andrew Viterbi’s papers, books and other publications will be housed.  The room is furnished with an Italian-crafted solid walnut table and chairs, and a built-in walnut bench along the west wall.  A Chia Impressionist-style ceiling mural depicts faces overlapping each other, symbolizing all of the people Viterbi has influenced in the past, present and future. 

Acquisitions Search Initiated
Nikias called the museum a valuable resource for scholars and announced the start of an international search for documents of historical value to the Viterbi Museum.
“We intend to make the Viterbi Museum an authoritative resource for scholars, so we are beginning an international search to secure an archive that will contain everything we know or we can learn about Andy Viterbi, stories, papers, pictures, technical contributions, anything and everything,” he said. “Some of the leading lights of information theory and the communications sciences are with us today. Please spread the word in the community.”

Faces of the past, present and future, all people Viterbi has known or has yet to meet, peer out in this Impressionist-style ceiling mural in the new museum library.

Nikias said that two families close to the Viterbis -- Colleen and Roberto Padovani, who are Viterbi School parents, and Judy and Chuck Wheatley, who are close friends – have made substantial commitments to establish a $1-million endowment to give the museum permanent funding. The endowment will be used to make important acquisitions, develop outstanding exhibits and displays and procure new technologies for the collection.
“Both families have committed about half of that amount already,” Nikias said.  “The goal is to raise the rest by June 1.”
Nikias emphasized the unique contribution the new Viterbi Museum will make to the overall history of information technology and wireless communications.
“The museum is not a tribute. The Viterbis don’t need a shrine, nor have they ever asked for one,” said Nikias.  “The Viterbi Museum is a symbol of our unending gratitude to Andrew and Erna.  And it’s a symbol of their enduring commitment to education.  Education is the great equalizer of society.”

--Diane Ainsworth
--Photos by Brian Morri