Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond

Topic: Mathematics Subtopic: Representation

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Stephen Uzzo

Published on January 19, 2009, Modified on February 16, 2010

  • Description and goals

    Mathematica was commissioned in 1961 by IBM for the new Science Wing at the California Museum of Science and Industry. 43 years later, the Hall of Science acquired this landmark exhibition on mathematics and premiered it at the opening of its North Wing in November 2004.

    “In doing an exhibition, as in Mathematica, one deliberately tries to let the fun out of the bag. The catch is that it can’t be any old fun but it must be a very special brandÂ… The fun must follow all of the rules of the concept involved.”
    -Charles Eames, exhibition designer

    Mathematica is a vintage exhibition and a work of art in its own right. It is intended to demonstrate the breadth of mathematics in theory, imagery and history. It includes some interactivity and many well designed graphics and text panels that give visitors insights into the science behind mathematical discoveries.

    One of the things I like about this exhibition is that it approaches mathematics from the process of discovery and through the kinds of spatial and temporal patterns mathematics involves. I contend that this “science of math” is the only math, and that the kind of drill and test prep we do in schools is little more than memorizing inchoate equations with little reference or integration with the science of math. Granted, we teach them some of the utility of math in school, but it is no more useful than any other tool unless it is used to create things. Imagine teaching wood shop by instructing the class how to use each of the tools, but then they never get to build anything with them…

  • Development process and challenges

    We acquired this exhibition to address several interests and needs (this is my perspective on it anyway):
    - A lack of adequate coverage of mathematical topics in existing exhibitions;
    - A reverence for the kinds of aesthetics and design values that the Eames’ represent;
    - A kind of celebration and return (forty years) of this landmark exhibition to New York City (see the link to the New York Times rave review of this when it opened).

    It is always a great honor and challenge to place an exhibition of this importance. On the one hand the Eames Foundation retains artistic rights over how the exhibition is displayed, so many negotiations went on to determine how to place the exhibition components. Very little variation is allowed in how they are laid out, and that pretty much determined its location in the museum.

    In terms of other physical challenges, the components are laid out with the large image wall on one side and the history of (primarily Western) mathematicians on the other. These large display walls needed a 12’ ceiling height, further complicating the positioning. We ended up locating it on the Mezzanine around the Central Pavilion in the original 1964 World’s Fair part of the building and had to have the image wall set back behind the mezzanine railing. This also required moving some sprinkler heads which would have interfered with the top of the image wall. If you have no idea what I am talking about, then you can either download some of the schematic maps of the Hall (see Educator Connections on our Website-one of the links), or come to the Hall and see…

    Another issues is simply the great age of this exhibition. While it was in very good condition when we obtained it, images and text panels that have paper or cardboard, unavoidably show signs of aging. Also, the graphical conventions used during the time of its development are a product of their age: stylistically, it smacks of Late Modernism, and the graphical conventions and type styles of the early 1960.

    Also, as a consequence of age is that the electronics and electromechanics in the interactive pieces are well beyond obsolete. It took a bit of doing to get everything up and running, and some pieces simply were not repairable. Replacement parts were not available and some of them require constant care and feeding. One very interesting problem is the Mobius Band, essentially an electric model train that must run on a track at every conceivable angle and pitch, including upside-down.

    Finally, as innovative and forward thinking as the exhibition was, a significant exhibit component is the Math history wall. Well, the realm of mathematics has not stood still, and since the history in Mathematica ends at 1961, it is obviously dated to any visitor who is paying attention.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    After much debate about how to overcome these challenges, we decided to redevelop parts of the exhibition to bring them up to date, without changing any of the aesthetics or visitor experience. We contracted with Moey, Inc. a NYC Interactive development firm to redevelop the electronics for the Multiplication Cube, and create an interactive display to append onto the Math History Wall and bring it up to date.

    Unfortunately, the excellent Math Peep Shows that accompany the exhibit were not included in the installation. We originally intended on having them, but since other aspects of the exhibition needed much more support than expected, we did not have enough money left over… We also toyed around with the idea of showing the Powers of Ten film, but could not determine an effective and compelling location for it in the space.

    Finally, we have also discovered that the models and interactives in Mathematica make excellent demos for doing distance learning. We have developed Math Virtual Field trips around some of the themes of Mathematica for schools which have been very well received.

Latest Comments (1)

getting mathematica

by Eric Siegel - February 10, 2009

Great job, Steve, of summarizing the challenges of getting mathematica to the hall.

An additional challenge that we encountered was that, immediately upon purchasing the exhibition from California Science Center (thanks guys!), we got a call from Eames Demetrios. He is Charles and Ray’s grandson, the head of the Eames Foundation, and the keeper of the Eames intellectual property. He is bright creative guy who spends a considerable amount of time fighting off chinese knockoffs of Eames chairs, etc.

In any case, he told us that he had some kind of agreement in which he has to approve the installation at the Hall. This was not part of our contract with CSC, but we wanted to keep the goodwill, so we paid for him to come from LA to NYC.

Turns out he did not approve our first installation idea. In fact, and in retrospect, he was right. He challenged us to come up with some new solutions, and worked with us to identify some possibilities. Mike Lane, our head of exhibit services came up with a brainstorm that is how the exhibit was finally installed.

I should mention that this is the only complete installation of this historic exhibition. As we occupy the 64 worlds fair Hall of Science, and as parts of Mathematica were first shown at the worlds fair, it is a fitting home.

I can’t say that it is the most wildly popular exhibition at the Hall, but it radiates quiet and playful dignity and usually attracts a small but intent group of visitors.

We love having it at the Hall.

Eric Siegel

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