Revisiting Digital Media at the Museum of Mathematics, One Year Later

A year ago I visited and posted a critique of the new NYC-based Museum of Mathematics (re: Digital Media at the new Museum of Mathematics). Educator Dora Kravitz replied at the time, “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.”

There certainly were improvements. The technical challenges we experienced last year were fixed, for example. And the activities were just as fun as ever for my kids, who had a blast running from one activity to another. And one piece I had been pining for, and hoped would be in place for now, was tantalizingly within reach.

Last year I wrote:

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…. I suspect something is in the works. Many museums give people a sticker to wear. This museum, however, requires everyone to wear a badge… 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.

Well, now the badges work… to a point. Just as with last year, we each received a badge with a unique combination of shapes and colors. But unlike last year, this time they did something!

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At any of the exhibit-associated computer terminals, I could approach and enter my personal data. Once I saw my unique combination appear on the screen, I was signaled that it knew who I was. The idea of a museum tracking and responding to my movement through the space, and integrating it with my activities once I return home, is terribly exciting. It can personalize my museum experience, highlight content I might otherwise have missed, and bridge the gap from museum to home by providing me with visit-related content and activities on the web and through email. That is the potential. Realizing that potential in practice, however, still seems just beyond reach.

Once my personal data was entered – my name and email address, for example – it now MEANT something to me when the terminals by other exhibits recognized who I was. So, for example, at one station you can design a 3D shape and then send it to a screen where people can vote for the one to be printed that day. Or I could race balls on a track designed around some math concept and then check the screen to see if my speed landed me on the day’s leaderboard. Or I could make fractal images of my kids and take photos to be sent to my email.

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Lovely ideas, all, but it just didn’t work. How does the computer know it is I in front of it rather than my son or daughter? When my son stepped up, how is the computer to know the agency has shifted? In fact, when there were multiple terminals in one section, how was it to know it was my son at his terminal who was controlling things and not the person behind him controlling a different terminal (see below)?

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My children spent more time tying to get the computer to properly recognize them than they did with the exhibits. It was frustrating. And when my son finally concluded, “You should stand back,” (and when he said “back” he meant half way across the room) it was clear that something was off. Digital media in a museum context should help visitors to connect with one another, not force them to decide to move away from each other.

At least, I decided at the time, the forty or so photos we had captured and sent to my email address throughout the visit would make the extra effort worthwhile (as well as the time spent entering the email and then requesting the photo each time). But then, upon returning home, I found no email with a link to my photos (and none has come in the weeks since). I found nothing on the museum’s web site directing me to a place to enter my email and receive the photos.

I do hope they eventually figure it out. This is clearly the direction for many museums in the future. Many eyes are on the Dallas Museum of Art’s DMA Friends program, which uses a card system, so there is no question as to the identity of the visitor. Disney recently unveiled something similar, the Magic Band, for visitors to their theme parks. Maybe once Disney spends their millions (billions?) getting it right (people are still on the fence), we will have a model to follow of how to use digital media to personalize museum visits.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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