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MoMATH

National Museum of Mathematics offers new perspectives on making the subject approachable

by Gaspard Nemec in Culture on 17 December 2012

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In opening to the general public in NYC last weekend, the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMATH) became the only numerically-focused museum in North America. The idea behind the museum dedicated to the quantitative field, according to mathematician, founder and executive director Glen Whitney, stems from the desire "to remove some of the barriers that prevents people from getting into math" and challenge the idea that "if you're not good at math you'll never be good at it." Says Whitney, "It's like playing a music instrument. The first time you pick it up, it's never going to sound good. But as you practice, it'll improve. The same goes for mathematics—if you explore on your own and keep looking for new things to discover, you'll be able to do beautiful math."

When a smaller museum dedicated to the same topic, located in a Long Island high school classroom, closed after 29 years, Whitney saw an opportunity to develop a similar project on a national scale. Although primarily targeted towards middle schoolers, the museum has been designed to appeal to all generations, and its interactive and didactic character does indeed create experiences that engage visitors of any age who just want to nerd out on math. More than 40 interactive installations focusing on areas from physics to art allow the audience to experiment with math in unexpected situations. "We want to show people that math are not isolated in a corner, it's part of the world around us that we see everyday," says Whitney.

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The Mathenaeum exhibit is comprised of a software-hardware system that allows the user to choose among a series of basic geometric shapes such as triangles, cubes or spheres. Following a series of mathematic criteria, users can expand the shape at their own discretion, controlling the program on a large, brass globe that operates like a touch mouse. Once the experimentation finishes, creations are indexed and voted on by the general audience. The most successful creations are subsequently 3D-printed on a machine nearby.

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The Square-Wheeled Trike caught our attention with a tricycle that is ridden on a bumpy circular track. Compensating for the non-linear movement of the square wheels, the oddly shaped track allows for a surprisingly smooth ride. We were also intrigued by the Enigma Cafe, a serene, coffee shop atmosphere where interactive, enigma brainteaser games are arranged on the tables instead of drinks and pastries. Visitors can sit and enjoy the stimulating, though not-so-relaxing task of solving one of dozens of logic puzzles.

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The museum's curatorial approach to exhibitions reflects Whitney's original intention for the space, the result of a rigorous collaborative design process involving kids, teachers, designers and mathematicians. Along with Cindy Lawrence, associate director and chief of operations, and Tim Nissen, chief of design, Whitney came up with more than 400 ways to showcase the fascinating applications of mathematics in the world. "We started with the people who are doing mathematics, asking them what things they had a lot of fun with", he says.

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What Whitney and his team have gathered with this all-ages team of experts is a modern museum that feels current—a place where people's perceptions about math are invited to be reconsidered and re-associated with what Whitney calls “colorful, engaging, beautiful, and fun” meaning.

Images by Gaspard Nemec

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