I recently had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of Mathematics (twitter @momath1) which opened up in late December 2012. I am an avid fan of all kinds of museums, and was very interested in seeing how the people behind the museum could take a cerebral discipline like math, and create engaging and tactile exhibits.
The space: The museum is wide and open without a clear flow plan. The exhibits are scattered around which can cause some problems since my first thought upon entering was “where do I go now?” However, as I wandered through I realized that the exhibits did not build on each other, nor necessarily tell an interconnected story. This non-linearity allows for visitors to enter at any point and ultimately reduces visitor crush at the initial points of the museum.
The lower level consists of one large room with several classrooms off one wall. Because of this open floor plan, the lower level also had a similar non-linear feel, although there were more clearly defined areas. This helped give the exhibits more focus, but I did find that the lower level seemed more crowded, especially for the exhibits in the corners.
The Exhibits: Good exhibits bring the viewers in. They engage people, make them think and act as springboards for conversations. This is why I love museums and am a firm believer in their ability to engage the public in critical thinking. The exhibits at the Museum of Math did a wonderful job of sparking discussion among my group* and I was very very pleased with many of them. In general they were large, and visually stimulating. Many of them would have fit in well at MoMA as they looked like installation pieces.
The real brilliant thing that the designers at MoMath did was to use these structures to ease people into the math. Most people approached the exhibit not saying “Wow, there’s a great exhibit of string product” but rather with “Whoa, what the hell is that?” on their lips. Now this is a math museum and once the viewer was engaged with the exhibit they could choose at what level they wanted the math, by selecting the level of complexity on the digital view screens accompanying each exhibit. You can see below the beginner (left) intermediate (middle) and advanced (right) explanations of string products (Click to enlarge):
The structure is a two story 3-d parabola, with 10 rings, numbered 1-10. In the middle of this parabola is a spire of digits 1-100. There are metal ropes connecting the rings, and the point at which the ropes cross the central spire is the product of the two numbers on the rings. The ropes are illuminated by LEDs, so when you press the 7 and the 9 button the rope which connects those two rings, lights up crossing the central spire at 63.
Now watching this exhibit my friends and I were immediately brought in, and started asking questions like “what is the function governing the spacing between the rings?” (turns out it’s y=x2) and “what is the distribution of the lengths of the ropes?” (Hoping someone from MoMath reads this and lets us know). The point is not that we are really nerdy (because that should be obvious) but rather, this was a great exhibit because as opposed to just looking at it, the exhibit really engaged us and got us talking about the material.
The other aspect of the exhibits that I really enjoyed was how they incorporated play into them. There was a huge wall for magnetic tessellation. There were complex like bunnies which generated simple patterns, or more simple structures that which demonstrated complex emergent properties.
The conclusion: The museum does a great job of giving you as much (or theoretically as little) math as you want in an engaging and entertaining way. There were several exhibits that were not up and running on our date, which means I will be going back. I will probably take my kids too. Although one is in Kindergarten I think that there are enough exhibits that are accessible to him that he will be entertained. Overall if you can admit to yourself that you’re nerdy enough to want to go to a museum structured around math you will not be disappointed. From a museum standpoint it is an excellent addition to NYC’s roster. The designers and curators are doing some very interesting things and I’m anxious to see what the museum grows into once it gets on it s feet.
*admittedly I went with two graduates of CalTech so the chances of us enjoying a math museum were already pretty high.