On December 15, one of the more innovative additions to New York City’s cultural scene, the National Museum of Mathematics, finally opened its doors to the public. Also known as MoMath, the institution is the brainchild of mathematics Ph.D. and hedge fund manager Glen Whitney, who hopes to solve what he called “the cultural problem in this country when it comes to the role and the perception of math” — namely, the idea that the subject is boring, rote, and unimaginative.
ARTINFO decided to investigate the results, and brought a panel of critics: including a fifth-grader, a third-grader, a first-grader, and a pre-schooler (who was a bit too young for the museum’s offerings). Both panel members and their mothers agreed that MoMath is a place of both inspiration and confusion.
Located on the northern boundary of Madison Square Park, MoMath takes up two floors of a building on East 26th street — including a fairly spacious main floor, where exhibits are showed off to major “wow” factor, as well as a more-cramped lower level. The exhibits target an audience of fourth- through eighth-graders, a demographic considered to be aging out of the city’s children’s museums. On the Friday after Christmas, it was packed.
Walking through the main floor, it seemed immediately clear that the museum had succeeded in making abstract mathematical principles tangible, through interactive displays that involved tasks such as riding a square-wheeled tricycle to experience how square wheels fit into a grooved track to create a smooth ride. My kids’ personal favorite (also my own) was the “Coaster Rollers,” which enable children to ride on a cart that glides over objects shaped like inflated triangles. You’d expect the ride to be bumpy, but because the shapes are isometric, meaning of equal dimensions, the cart glides smoothly over them. My third-grade daughter Clara and I were both interested to learn from a nearby screen that a circle is the simplest isometric shape, but not the only one.
This was one of the rare times, however, when we learned something useful from one of the information screens stationed around the museum. Each screen corresponds to three or four exhibits, and when you finally find the correct one (often difficult to locate) the information is often scanty. At other times, the screens “were set up as if you already knew about mathematics,” as Idris, the fifth-grader in our group, put it.
My daughter’s main complaint about MoMath was that “for some things they don’t explain how they have to do with math or what exactly you do with it.” In one exhibit, you turn interlocking wheels with partial images of monkeys on them — but the object of the game, and its relationship to math, was unclear to us. Entering the section named the Mathenaeum, we found kids manipulating images on the screens with joysticks — but none of us had any idea what they were doing (I’m not sure they did, either). I subsequently learned from the museum’s press kit that in the Mathenaeum, you can “use one of the stations to transform basic shapes into original designs. A 3-D printer will build some of the original designs before your very eyes.” I didn’t see the 3-D printer, and I’m also not sure that we need to bring kids into a museum in order to give them more time in front of screens.
Given that the museum has just recently opened, it’s also still getting some of the kinks out. When we arrived on the lower level, four exhibits were under repair by staff members (although they were up and running again that afternoon). And though admission prices are basically on a par with other children's institutions in the city, nothing comes cheap — it’s $16 for adults and $10 for children ages two to 12, with a one-dollar discount if tickets are purchased online.
Ideally, once the exhibits are all functioning reliably, staff members will be able to spend more time interacting with the public to explain the mathematical principles at work. They could also help alleviate crowding around certain exhibits by leading demonstrations with child participation. (A very cool exhibit called the “Tracks of Galileo,” which lets visitors build downhill tracks to race little cars, was chaotically monopolized by one or two children, making it impossible to pull off the intended math experiment.) In the meantime, it’s likely that kids on school trips (and math teachers seeking to jazz up their curriculum) will best experience MoMath on guided tours during off-hours.
But even if the formula still needs to be tweaked, the museum is already pulling off its mission to show the exploratory side of math. In the Enigma Café, which serves up puzzles instead of food, visitors young and old crowded the tables to investigate a variety of mathematical games. When one museum-goer wondered about the point of a maze that must be navigated without making any left turns, another young visitor explained: “it’s about perspective.” There is a certain infectious energy of exploring mathematics among so many other visitors, and my third-grader and first-grader are both interested in going back again. They can count me in.