What Can Art Museums Learn from the New Museum of Mathematics?

The entrance to the Museum of Mathematics (click to enlarge) (courtesy the Museum of Mathematics)
The entrance to the Museum of Mathematics (click to enlarge) (all images courtesy the Museum of Mathematics unless otherwise noted)

The new Museum of Mathematics, or MoMath, provides an interactive introduction to mathematical concepts through a series of hands-on, kinetic exhibits that draw in children and their families. The two-story museum, located on the north side of Madison Square Park, is built around a series of didactic sculptures and displays that illustrate math and physics principals. When I visited on a recent weekend, the relatively small space was brimming with children and their parents scrambling through the exhibits. Math, it seemed, had been brought to life.

Regardless of whether these children were fully internalizing the concepts illustrated, they were involved and engaged in a subject that typically conjures feelings of academic obligation, yelling in glee rather than sleeping on their desks. We might ask, then: what can art museums learn from this interactive approach?

Let’s start with the hands-on approach of the displays themselves, as they constitute the central teaching method of the museum. Almost every exhibit in the museum can be touched, altered, climbed upon, or interacted with in some way. A tricycle with square wheels, set on a large circle of undulating ground, dominates the entrance to the museum. The principle is simple: the uneven ground, which rolls in waves, combines with the square wheels to make for a ride that is nearly as smooth as one with circular wheels on a level floor.

Installation view, the Museum of Mathematics
Installation view, the Museum of Mathematics

“Coaster Roller,” a display that demonstrates principals of geometry and movement, is constructed out of a long corridor of acorn-shaped, colored objects that roll under a platform on which visitors sit and propel themselves from one end of the exhibit to the other by pulling on ropes. The reason the platform rolls smoothly on the acorns has to do with their constant diameter: though their shape is uneven, the distance from any one side to the next remains the same, so they act like spheres when rolled.

Other exhibits demonstrate phonetic principals (through colored orbs that resonate when touched), fractals (cameras subdivide the visitor that stands in front of them, making him branch out like a tree), and tessellations (in shapes that the visitor can fit together on a magnetic wall). A two-story “calculator” occupies the spiral staircase between the two floors; visitors push buttons with two numbers they wish to multiply, and the sum lights up on the corresponding intersecting solution. Though the museum is dominated by (and designed for) children, it is impossible not to touch the displays, and adults and toddlers alike can be seen demonstrating mathematical principals as they play.

"String Product," the museum's two-story calculator
“String Product,” the museum’s two-story calculator (photo courtesy Samuel Doyon)

In addition, the system of labeling is tailored to different types of viewers, allowing for various levels of complexity depending on the visitor’s age and comprehension. Computer screens mounted on metal platforms stand next to each exhibit, explaining its underlying principal to the visitor interested in more than just climbing on the display. Buttons in the corner of the screen allow the visitor to choose one of three degrees of complexity, ranging from basic to more nuanced. Parents can read their children a simple summary of the math behind the play and then go into greater detail themselves. It is truly an ingenious concept.

Musical spheres resonate with visitors' touch (click to enlarge)
Musical spheres resonate with visitors’ touch (click to enlarge) (photo courtesy Samuel Doyon)

Of course, as with any newly opened museum, there are kinks that need to be worked out. The small space is overcrowded, and many displays are currently closed or out of order; the explanatory screens are off to the side, and not enough attendants stand by the exhibits to be able to properly explain how they work. It is, in the end, a children’s museum, and I was a bit disappointed by how shallow some of the exhibits seemed, craving a more complex and intellectual experience. Regardless of these failings, however, the MoMath strategy works: an attendant at the museum told me they have seen over 8,000 visitors since opening in mid-December, and the number continues to climb.

Art museums should take from this approach the idea of a more direct, interactive method of engaging viewers. Though paintings and classical statuary can hardly be touched or climbed upon, installing some sort of complementary demo that visitors can interact with may help bring the methodology or meaning behind a work to life. Employing two sets of labels in certain exhibits could allow for a better family viewing experience. Above all, striving for an experience that makes the visitor part of the exhibit itself, rather than a passive observer, will help create a more dynamic experience and, perhaps, make Rembrandt as exciting and engaging as a square-wheeled bike.

The National Museum of Mathematics is located at at 11 East 26th Street (Madison Square, Manhattan) and is open 10 am–5 pm, seven days a week.

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