The Museum of Mathematics
of an Exhibition
Published on January 07, 2014, Modified on February 28, 2014
I paid the sixteen dollar admission to enter New York City’s Museum of Mathematics with a fifty dollar bill, and was given four dollars in return. Do the math; oops! A risibly paradoxical initiation to a place all about math, made all the more priceless when the cashier froze trying to recalculate the correct amount due. Indeed, you may reason correctly, there is a need in the world for museums dedicated purely to computation, but I took it at face value: this is certainly not the first time a fifty has been mistaken for a twenty. And the cashier was understandably shaken, conscious of the context, and with me there, proclaiming with glee, “I am so blogging this!”
The Museum of Mathematics is on Madison Square Park, in the heart of Manhattan. My mid-December 2013 visit coincided with the last day of the Museum’s first year of operation. It is the only museum dedicated to math in the United States, and was formed partially in response to the closing in 2006 of the former only-museum-of-mathematics: the smaller, humbler Goudreau Museum of Long Island.
Mathematics is notoriously assumed to be a difficult–even taboo–subject for interactive exhibits. Surprisingly few exhibitions have been dedicated to the topic. The most notable is Mathematica, designed by those saints of mid-Century Modernism, Ray and Charles Eames. The only fully intact copy of Mathematica happens to be on display at the New York Hall of Science, just nine miles east of MoMath, in Flushing Meadows. I am an exhibit designer and math geek, and I confess that Mathematica is amongst my favorite-ever exhibitions. But because math exhibits are so rare, there is vast territory yet to be developed, and I entered MoMath simply excited, without expectations or yardsticks that measure in Eames.
In fact, the exhibit design at MoMath is elegant and contemporary, clean and materially sensible. Some of it is awesome, a lot of it clever, some quite gorgeous, and overall the design is fairly cohesive considering the exhibits come from a wide sample of designers and artists. Textures, colors and spaces are very appealing in a slick and shiny way–seductive, yes, but convivial, not exactly. The installation is open and easy to meander. There are a few annoying lighting issues, not a cozy corner to be had, but all-in-all a unique and handsome diversion on a snowy afternoon in the Big Apple.
In terms of concept and content, topology dominates by an order of magnitude. In the “Mathenaeum,” a dazzling pavilion of walnut and brass, visitors build complex solids–symmetrical 3D shapes–step by step, virtually. Some of these creations are 3D-printed and placed on display–well after the visitor has left, of course, but the artifacts themselves are both delightful and precious. The so-called “Ring of Fire” (nothing to do with Johnny Cash) is a fantastic, invisible curtain of laser light that reveals bright sections in a set of acrylic Platonic solids as they are passed through it, a thoroughly cool illustration of an essential geometric concept.
Elsewhere, an interactive floor offers a few body-based games for groups, including mazes and a Vonoroi boundary generator, entertaining a steady stream of visitors despite the frustrations of its oftentimes dull responsiveness. In another exhibit, fractals are generated via video feedback, which makes perfect sense conceptually, even if the implementation is a bit clunky.
The Museum offers a fun diversity of interactions, with commendable emphasis on the “Doing,” not overly cluttered with explanations. A deployment of touch screen labels takes care of this, clustered at nodes throughout the exhibit halls. They give easy access to a graduated set of interpretations, again low on the conviviality scale, but right-minded in an attempt to compel visitors to control their own intake of information.
Shockingly, very little real world application is on display. Abstract mathematic concepts are rendered beautifully, aesthetically, … abstractly. I left with a good feeling, but no greater appreciation for math in my own life, much less armed with tips on how to improve my lot with equations. All I have for the next cocktail party is the story about the cashier. This, and the Museum’s obsession with topology makes me think the advisory council is perhaps not diverse enough, though the Board of Trustees is an impressive group of brains. Here we are, seven subway stops from the Financial District, with no exhibit on compound interest or anything else economic. Avoided are any of a myriad standard science center physics exhibits that could be given new lives with a math-centric overlay. Frequencies, pitches, wavelengths, harmonies, and Bach are never heard. (Alas, one abstract sound exhibit was not functioning when I was there). Nowhere in sight are the surveyors, cryptographers, geologists, air traffic controllers, actuaries or automobile mechanics that use math everyday. To truly achieve their mission to enhance public understanding, stimulate inquiry, and spark curiosity, the marvels of MoMath will need a much greater compliment in stuff that relates to our common, everyday lives.
The Museum of Mathematics overall embodies a seriousness and a dedication that I hope will lead to a successful and expanding second year. Happy birthday, MoMath, and many more to the hundredth power!