I made a flash trip to New York City to see my favorite play, twice, (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). The MoMath Museum of Mathematics had opened a few days before, so I walked down Broadway to take a look.
The museum is situated in a double-wide storefront with entrance on the right and exit through a gift shop on the left. There was a disconcerting din as I entered – the din I associate with science museums and natural history museums and the like – a din created by hoards of small school children enjoying the comparative freedom of a long recess.
I experience math as a contemplative act as I think most math types do. It was impossible to enjoy (by enjoy I mean think about) the math exhibits and activities with that amount of noise and general running around. Not that I blame the children – at that age the default approach to life is exuberant destructive testing. Many exhibits weren’t working – attributed to Hurricane Sandy but I am guessing because there were not robust enough for a child’s random explorations. The lasting image that I carry with me from the experience is that of a boy quietly sitting on the edge of the streams of children working on a puzzle. He looked forlorn, lonely, but he might have enjoyed a little mathematics.
Many exhibits required some reading to understand their objectives and these were ignored by the kids. Even I was impatient with the instructions because the print on the computer screens was too small to read from afar and dim in the bright lights.
Our attempts to “sell” science and now math with activities for young children seem misguided. The fields offer the pleasure of thinking, not of physical activity. The experience is individual and requires quiet and an ability to experiment thoughtfully. A few geometric puzzles in the context of a noisy museum will not attract new scientists or remind old ones what science and math are all about.
My design for a math museum would be a bank of individual cubicles. Inside would be projected a virtual dome with various figures representing important mathematical concepts floating in the air. A person would then be able to reach out, select an object and follow his or her thoughts and conjectures. Maybe there would be a small window that alerts if another person in another cubicle is exploring a similar topic at a similar depth and maybe a chat could ensue or not. Now that I think about it, this would be a museum for introverts. And why not?