|Should you go?|
|Time spent||137 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||The Museum of Math puts model racing cars on a Möbius strip track and lets kids drive them round and round.
The depiction and the accompanying explanation of how one-sided shapes work are rich and complex, and epitomize the museum’s approach to learning.
The National Museum of Mathematics (or, inevitably, MoMath, sigh), occupies two floors of a deep, somewhat narrow storefront on the northern border of Madison Square Park. You know you’ve reached the right place because the door handles form a red letter π.
Automated vending machines dispense unique, reusable tags for visitors to wear. There’s a lot they could do to customize the visitor’s experience based on the tags. Possibly the things generate a useful datastream showing visitors’ paths through the museum and the exhibits they try or skip. I hope they do, at least; I didn’t see much in the way of visitor-facing uses of them. In which case why not use a traditional sticker or little metal badge?
Math, Math, and Mo’ Math
Everything on display at the Museum of Math is interactive, hands-on, and accompanied by a touchscreen explanatory display, or in some cases a human being to talk about what you’re seeing and doing. it reminded me very much of San Francisco’s great Exploratorium, possibly the granddaddy of experiential museums, where I spent many happy afternoons as a kid.
There are some computer-based exhibits, but refreshingly a great deal of the math concepts the museum covers are demonstrated using old-school, analog, often mechanical means.
MoMath’s flashiest “exhibit” is probably a pair of tricycles set up on a special path composed of catenary arches that perfectly complement the eccentrically sized square wheels of the tricycles in question. It looks like it absolutely should not work, and yet, thanks to math, it does.
Geometry probably constitutes the easiest set of math concepts to convey visually, and so it’s unsurprising that MoMath emphasizes geometry and graphing pretty heavily. I particularly liked a simple exhibit that used a laser and a translucent cone to demonstrate conic sections. Possibly due to my known weakness for museum lasers.
Sister topics like topology (e.g., the aforementioned Möbius strip racing) are also well represented. As are probability, statistics, and programming. One display features a pack of small, adorable robotic bugs with simple programming that generates complex emergent behaviors. Like selling T-shirts at the gift shop.
Some of the MoMath displays vividly demonstrate the beauty of math. A variety of faux-holographic, 3D-looking etched metal designs by Matthew Brand are shiny, and small models of mathematically generated shapes delight the eye, as well as challenging visitors to create their own in the “Mathenaeum.”
MoMath also has a temporary exhibition space. When I visited it looked at reflections, discussing mirrors and how they work (food for thought: a mirror does not reverse images right-to-left, it reverses them front-to-back). A range of demonstrations let visitors play with mirrors and their properties as they related to shape, color, and bending and stretching.
And finally, a wall of tessellations proved super therapeutic. There’s something inherently relaxing about tiling a wall with perfectly fitting, brightly colored dinosaurs. Or bunny rabbits, or monkeys, which were also available.
The Museum of Math handles its wall texts exceedingly well. It deploys one touchscreen for every 3 or so exhibits. The screen delivers an executive summary version of the mathematical story, with options to go into far greater depth depending on your time, age, interest, and numeracy level.
It’s very well done, and a technologically-assisted answer to museums’ needs to serve multiple constituencies. Though in this case the challenge isn’t avoiding typical museum-speak; rather it’s deciding how much or how little of the technical language of mathematics to include.
The touchscreens also typically include a “who” component alongside the “what” and “why.” These take the form of video interviews with mathemeticians who offer a more human touch than the text, graphics, equations, and animations supply. It’s really smart, and I wish they foregrounded that aspect of the screens’ capabilities more.
Who Should Visit the National Museum of Mathematics?
I was prone to liking the Museum of Math, and indeed I did. In the interest of full, if embarrassing, disclosure, I was a state champion high school mathlete. But more that that, I love hands-on museums. Additionally, I continue to believe science museums are underrepresented in the New York museumverse.
All that said, and although MoMath executes its mission statement well, I’m still not sure everyone should go.
It’s a great children’s museum, and parents know it. My plan for a nice quiet weekday visit with a (grown-up) friend was thwarted thanks to spring break for New York City public schools. It seemed like the kid visitors were having tons of fun; hopefully modern pedagogy ensures that lots of mathy wisdom was sneaking in as well. My former kid self would have loved this museum, no doubt. So bring the kids if you have them.
But if you’re without kids and your emotions regarding mathematics are more neutral-to-negative, I’m not sure MoMath will convert you. It’s a little too dense and (surprisingly for a mathematically inclined institution) chaotic. Exhibits seem jammed in based on space requirements rather than in any logical order. Having said that, for the openminded MoMath offers a look into the depths of math, what it’s enabled, and what makes it so powerful.
Three closing thoughts:
- The gift shop here is a great resource if you’re on the hunt for geeky presents in the Madison Square/Flatiron area. Books, games, and puzzles galore.
- The Museum of Sex is nearby. Both institutions relate to the topic of multiplying, but otherwise I’ve got no idea why you’d make a double feature of them.
- The New York Hall of Science in Queens hosts a surprisingly deep section on mathematical concepts. However, it was almost entirely non-interactive, heavily dependent on wall texts and static models to tell its stories. MoMath is far more engaging.
|Address||11 East 26th Street, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: $18|
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