Museum of Math: Does Not Compute

Rani Molla
Written 2 years ago
in Data

Nerds, rejoice. New York City’s Museum of Math opened its doors this weekend to open minds about math. MoMath, as it’s called, is the first museum of its kind in the United States. But it feels more like a sophisticated playground than an educational institution—Chuck E. Cheese’s for the college-bound. The two-story, 19,000 square foot building houses 30 exhibits that are at once beautiful, engaging and based on numbers—a data visualizer’s dream.

The exhibits represent mathematics broadly, including such varied concepts as geometry, music and puzzles. Many of the pieces are bright and alluring, screaming out for interaction.

The “Wall of Fire” provokes museum-goers to walk through a sheet of fanned-out lasers and to test how different shapes are bisected by the light. “Hyper Hyperboloid” encourages people sitting within its base to explore the nature of three-dimensional curves.

Glowing bulbs send out different pitches in “Harmony of the Spheres,” presumably to teach kids about the interaction of sound in chords. But situated as it is in the middle of the first floor without any notation, the piece runs the risk of just being a cool sculpture that makes noise. The same goes for the intriguing “Square-Wheeled Trike.” It’s awesome to ride, but how does it work?

Indeed, for a museum dedicated to math, it’s surprisingly light on, well, math. Nearby touch screens provide explanations—all of which are clunky—for three different age levels, but it’s difficult to tell whether they are part an exhibit or an exhibit themselves. Without explanation, museumgoers can’t know the significance of the objects with which they’re interacting. It’s just art.

Granted, the museum is geared toward middle schoolers, for whom the technicalities of math might be a bummer. But it couldn’t hurt to at least give the equations for the shapes, colors and concepts that already have their attention. The kids are already eating—and enjoying—their vegetables. You don’t have to explicitly tell them it’s healthy, but adding the nutritional label can’t hurt.

The purpose of the museum, according to its Chief of Design Tim Nissen, is to “change people’s perceptions about math.” Nissen, formerly of interactive design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates as well as the American Museum of Natural History, definitely has the power to do so. He knows how to create exhibits that will catch viewers’ attention and it’s easy to imagine the museum at full occupancy, with nearly 400 kids stoked on mathematical concepts.

Unfortunately you can’t change their opinions on numbers if they don’t realize they’re dealing with numbers at all.

Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.