Digital Media at the new Museum of Mathematics

The new Museum of Mathematics opened up this month, in NYC. When I first heard of it, I was super excited to check it out. It’s like a Science Center, using experiential learning to explain scientific concepts, but the concepts, of course, are all about math. And as a new museum I was specifically interested in how digital media was used throughout the exhibit to enhance or deepen museum-based learning.

Like all science centers, this place is fun! The moment you come in, your eyes are presented with one interesting thing after another, each competing for your attention, and you want to try it all. A bicycle with square wheels that rides smoothly. A spinning seat inside two sets of vertical ropes that, over time, entrap the spinner. You get the idea – cool stuff.

Digital media (DM) was used in a number of ways throughout the museum.

DM as the Helper

Every exhibit is presented as a stand alone exhibit, most without any instructions beyond an intriguing title, like “Coaster Roller” (my daughters favorite, btw). But at each one, I wanted to know, “Where’s the math?” That is answered by an associated computer display, that is brilliantly designed to let the user select their level of desired language complexity – so at one end, a child can be engaged while, on the other, their parent. The display then offers additional areas of research, such as important people and such. My guess is this is an app that will be released to the public, and make the museum experience that much more richer (and if not, why not?). In any case, this is clearly a good example of the future of signage:

The Future of Signage

One section, called the Cafe, has tables with chairs, each featuring different interesting physical brain teasers. In the center of each table is a small touch computer display explaining the challenge, offering hints and more. They took the place of, say, volunteers who might have roamed the space to facilitate the visitor experience. From that perspective, they worked quite well. However, push the wrong button and you have exited the app and, without the required password, there was no way back in.

Locked out!

DM as Enabler

Sometimes digital media assists the visitors, creating a blended learning experience, such as the two player game in which the first person to combine numbers to add to 15 by pulling physical levers wins. The challenge, however, is that only one person can use the same number at a time. For example, you might pick the number 5, but then I can take it from you if I want. As the players face each other, the computer interface facilitates the process, and quite well.

Finding Fifteen

In another exhibit, Shape Ranger, physical items are placed on a digital table, as visitors attempt to arrange them to build shapes in the most economical way possible. A screen above shows a shape-based version of the arranged physical items, which clearly communicates the empty space needing to be filled, the efficiency of the design, and additional words of support. It was an elegantly designed combination of physical and digital tools, that worked for both the player and those watching.

Shape Ranger

I suspected the 3D printer might have offered another good example, but like a half dozen or so of the exhibits (both analog and digital) it was not functioning.

DM as the Medium

Sometimes, digital media was the medium of the experience. To explain and demonstrate fractals, a screen projects an image of the visitor turned INTO a fractal. A side display allows one to choose the season. My son preferred the fall, and being a tree, while my daughter preferred spring, and being a flower.

Visitor as Fractal

Overall, the wide ranging use of digital media seemed well designed and thought through. Exhibits, like the count to 15 challenge, required visitors to play WITH one another while others, like the fractal photos, created something beautiful and fascinating for those waiting to watch.

The main thing I felt missing, and this might be something planned for down the road, was something more blended – connecting my experience before/after the museum with my time in the space – or something meta – connecting my experience throughout the museum. A web site or app, for example, could help with the former. For the meta, however, I suspect something is in the works. Many museums give people a sticker to wear. This museum, however, requires everyone to wear a badge (creating the perhaps unintentional affect of making everyone look like staff; I can’t begin to count how many times I asked others or they asked me for help). My son noticed that each badge was unique, with a unique combination of shapes. Each of the descriptive accompanying computer terminals seemed to have a space to recognize me, in some way. So perhaps something is being constructed that will both tie together my experience in the space and then connect me to it once I return home.

There’s no doubt this is a fantastic addition to the cultural space of the city, offering entry points for all levels into intriguing math concepts. With a more blended experience, it might also help people understand how these concepts are applied in the real world and why they are relevant. And until then, it offers a good example of how digital media in a museum can explain content and connect visitors with both the exhibits and one another.


About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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One Response to Digital Media at the new Museum of Mathematics

  1. Dora Kravitz says:

    As a former classroom teacher and current professional developer, I still view museums with my teacher lens – asking “how can take my class of 30 kids here, what will align with my curriculum, etc.” It was VERY interesting to read your perspectives on the museum, with your digital media lens, which is not something I would have consciously been thinking about. I completely agree with your take on nearly everything. Really hoping that if I visit a year from now that I’ll be impressed by the improvements – this museum has SOOOO much potential but was entirely disappointing.

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