The National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in New York City
These impressions are based on a quick visit on a crowded Friday afternoon during a school holiday two weeks after the grand opening of the institution. So bear that in mind as you read on and give MoMath some mad props for trying to tackle mathematics in an interactive science center format. They do a great job of portraying mathematics as colorful, surprising, and capable of both producing beautiful results and having a deeply beautiful order. I’ll definitely be going back after they’ve had a chance to hit their stride…
No front-of-house, just house
When you enter MoMath, you’re confronted with a row of machines vending the badges that visitors have to wear in the museum. No staff, no elaborate instructions, just machines that dispense these.
Surprisingly, they worked really well. We got our badges in short order and, I have to say, I was pretty impressed with how smoothly it all worked. The lines moved quickly, and people got about their visiting with minimal fuss. It is a nice solution to the dilemma of collecting admissions without having to resort to hiring typically low-paid staff to be both ambassadors and money collectors. It’s a job I held myself once, and it’s often not fun. I’m glad to see institutions trying to find ways to provide service without doing it the way it’s always been done.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with a director who was getting rid of the task setting up projectors for meetings as a someone’s job. I professed amazement, and I think I even said “Then who’ll set up the projectors?” The reply, of course was that staff would have to learn how to set up their own projectors. Having a specialist technician who did this job was an obsolete task in the same way that organizations used to have highly-trained specialist typists, who learned how to use expensive electric typewriters and were able to type letters quickly. Now, everybody is expected to type their own dang letters, and in some organizations they have to figure out which end of the plug goes into the projector. Progress occurs in strange ways.
MoMath and digital media
Barry Joseph at AMNH was at MoMath a week before us and wrote a nice review focusing on their use of digital media. It’s worth reading. I was less taken with their overall strategy for using digital media to carry all the interpretive content, though I am very excited to see how well some of their strategies work out.
Where’s the math?
MoMath has obviously made the decision not to provide interpretive content at the exhibits, just minimal instructions. If you want to get the meat of the educational content, you have to go to a separate kiosk, several of which are scattered around the exhibit halls. Sometimes, just figuring out which exhibit went with the content on the screen was difficult. “Is this the Coaster Roller? No it’s that car thingie over there.” Doubling and tripling up of exhibits covered in each kiosk certainly cuts down on screen clutter, but I felt that as a strategy, combined with too-clever titles, it introduced too much of an obstacle to getting at the content I sought. I thought, too, that the separating of the experiential (doing the interactive) from the educational (using the kiosk) seemed like a way to both please visitors who were already mathematically-inclined, while allowing those weren’t to skip having to ingest any icky math.
Choose your level
My favorite part of our visit was seeing the concept of customizable digital content implemented at a decent scale. And done with no fanfare, too. I’ve listened to people talk about digital labels for years, decades, even. MoMath has developed a scheme that provides visitors with three levels of content and lets them switch on the fly seamlessly.
That’s it. At the top right of each screen there’s icons of three fractal triangles corresponding to the levels of content available. They seem to always default to basic, but you’re never more than a press away from changing it. I loved it, but found that the actual implementation was spotty. Some labels had identical text at progressively smaller type sizes. Hopefully they’ll flesh it out as time goes on.
Where’s the math?
Despite liking the idea of presenting customized digital labels, one concern I had as we muscled our way through the happy vacation crowds was the dearth of real math available as part of doing the activities. I knew enough to be able to see the connections between what people were doing and mathematics, but I wonder how much new math most of the visitors were acquiring. This disconnect between experience design and informal education is one I’m seeing a lot of these days and it’s a little disheartening. It’s engaging, sure, but is it reaching the ostenisble audience? We’re actually looking at a possible research project to study what kinds of engagement lead to long-term knowledge gains.
I’m past clever signs, in case you hadn’t noticed. This out of order sign is a classic example of being clever at the expense of saying what you mean. I watched two different groups of visitors try to use the exhibit these signs were attached to because the signs don’t actually tell you anything useful, like “Don’t push the button because nothing’s gonna happen”. I’ve written about my views on writing before. Museum writing shouldn’t be about demonstrating one’s cleverness. It should be clear as glass.
The exhibit titles, too I found really unhelpful. “Mathenaeum”? What happens in there? No idea… The point of an exhibit title is to allow someone to decide that they want to approach an exhibit closely enough to maybe use it. Opaques titles may draw in some curious passersby, but they’ll turn away just as many. MoMath was full of those. If you knew a fair bit about math, then the plays on words could be amusing. If you didn’t, then they didn’t make it any easier to figure out what those exhibits were about.
So there you have it. It was a quick visit at a busy time in a brand new place that is taking on a steep challenge. And judging from the audience, they’re on a path with promise. Go see for yourself next time you’re in NYC.
Next up: Sleep No More!