Review: The National Museum of Mathematics

When it comes to museums I’m pretty picky. I wasn’t expecting much when I planned on visiting MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics, during our trip to New York City two weekends ago. Their website is pretty minimalist and few people have even heard of this museum, but it turns out that MoMath on 26th street in Manhattan is quite a gem. My son was delighted at the idea of a whole museum devoted to mathematics, and the giant “Pi” handle on the double glass entrance doors just raised our expectations of what was inside. There were two floors of interactive exhibits and tons of friendly staff to help explain and interpret the math.

A few of our favorites:

The bicycle with square wheels

My son heard about this concept a while ago, so he was super excited to finally see one in person and try it out. There’s a great explanation of how this works here.

Enigma Cafe

I love science museums that have an area to sit down and explore small puzzles and games at your own pace and this one was especially well done – nestled in a cozy wood paneled area of the bottom floor. The puzzles themselves were highly engaging and tactile but with small screens to explain the goal, solution, and mathematics behind each.  If only it had been a real cafe and served coffee, I would have been in heaven.

Tessellation wall

Younger visitors to the museum gravitated to this station which had a huge wall with different types of magnetic tessellations. We loved the fact that the interactive panel nearby offered challenges appropriate for older students and we enjoyed the chance to build our own designs.

The cryptography machine

This was a natural fit for my son who has been studying cryptography since he was in second grade using CryptoClub.

Shape Ranger

This interactive light table used to explore the efficiency of shape packing was a favorite of mine.
Suggestions for future exhibits: I would love to see something focusing on cellular automata through the Game of Life or Abelian sandpiles (a concept my son and I are playing with in our homeschool). Also an exhibit to explain the Monty Hall problem would be a lot of fun. I feel both of these lend themselves easily to cool interactive explorations.

My only real critique of the museum, and of a lot of museums actually, is that they require you to stand and read a lot of background information on the nearby displays to really get the most out of the exhibits. For example on the bottom floor they had a wonderfully done plinko machine with marbles dropping in to demonstrate binomial probability distributions. This was great for my son, who has been exposed to this idea many times, to see as a live demonstration. However, for an elementary student who is just learning about this concept, a 15 minute read-through at a kiosk is asking a lot when surrounded by so much excitement going on around them. The Harmony of the Spheres exhibit proposing to connect music and math was similarly distracting – kids touching the balls to light up and make sounds without really learning much. From a cognitive science standpoint I would love to see more museums integrate the learning into the exhibits by requiring predictions and other user feedback rather than having explanatory text that is separate from the physical demonstration.

At the same time I do have to give credit to MoMath for putting a lot of thought into the information they present. Rather than overwhelm users with a lot at once they offer enough for each visitor to get started and then offer a choice of more information for those who are interested.  They also have plenty of staff who help to explain and interpret the exhibits.

MoMath is a great time, especially for a math loving child. It is centrally located across from Madison Square Park and reasonably priced at $15 for adults and $10 for students. The museum claims to target children in the 4th-8th grade range, which I thought was very accurate though there is plenty for adults as well. The gift shop is a special treat with lots of math related games, puzzles, and art work. My son wanted to return and we will definitely make it a priority on our next visit to New York City.

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