Mathematics is Mostly Friendly at the Science Museum

Mathematics is dull, confusing, and basically irrelevant to anyone outside of science and technology, right?

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Mathematics: The Winton Gallery at Science Museum. Author’s photo.

Wrong. I recently discovered this at a sneak preview of Mathematics, the much-anticipated new permanent gallery at London’s Science Museum.

This is a space for people like me. People who wish they knew more about math but are anxious they won’t understand. People who love museums and history but feel out of place at a science or technology museum. People – especially women – who weren’t encouraged to pursue math by their teachers, as if it were a secret club to which only a select few were invited. I’ve written about museum anxiety before, and Mathematics does an excellent job of making an unfriendly topic more accessible.

I’ve disliked math since my teenage years. I nearly flunked out in high school, even with an army of extra tutors. My grade 11 algebra teacher congratulated me for getting 52% on the final exam. For him, that was the highest an artsy hippy like me was expected to achieve. Like many others, I’ve carried this anxiety about mathematics into adulthood. I panic at anything beyond adding or subtracting historical dates. My restaurant tips oscillate between incredibly generous and unfairly stingy. I’m not ashamed to count on my fingers if needed. Bragging about mathematical ineptitude has even become a badge of pride for many arts workers.

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Phillip’s 1949 Economic Computer, which models how a national economy works using water to represent the flow of money. Author’s photo.

How refreshing then, that Mathematics is a departure from every expectation; indeed, from the typical Science Museum experience overall. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the gallery is an otherworldly oasis of calm in a museum that is often crowded and noisy. It targets adults and older youth, a welcome expansion beyond the museum’s young family audience. Each object in Mathematics is carefully chosen to tell a story, creating an elegant, uncluttered space that doesn’t overwhelm. Because the gallery is organised by theme rather than chronology, it encourages visitors to choose their own path through the space. This cuts down on confusion, bottlenecks, and the need for additional signage.

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According to Zaha Hadid Architects, the gallery’s layout and curved sculpture were “driven by equations of airflow used in the aviation industry”. Author’s photo.

Mathematics has one surprising weakness: it is missing objects and stories from non-Western cultures. A 17th-century astrolabe from Lahore is featured, but Western, white, and male contributions tell most of the gallery’s story. Where are the navigational formulas of Polynesian seafarers? The number systems of the ancient Sumerians, who gave us the abacus and time measurements in units of 60? The long history of mathematical innovations in China? The geometrical designs of the Haida Nation and others? This missed opportunity is a shame, given how well-suited the universality of mathematics is for telling diverse, international stories.

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17th-century astrolabe made by Jamal al-Din ibn Muquin, with interactive panel explaining how it is used. Author’s photo.

Despite this omission, Mathematics is still a refreshing addition to the Science Museum and London museum circuit. As a math-anxious person, it encouraged me to connect with the story of mathematics. It asked provocative questions, and gave me new insights into familiar objects. It also changed my perspective on the Science Museum itself, as a place that can cater to adult audiences as well as young families.

In short, mathematics can be friendly.

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Enjoy the peaceful flow. Author’s photo.

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The Ideal Museum: Reflections on European Institutions

I recently spent two weeks in Europe visiting family and friends, and had the opportunity to be a tourist as well! Experiencing several museums, galleries, and historic sites in London, Amsterdam, and Rome in quick succession allowed me to compare and contrast my visits. I began wondering if there were such a thing as an “ideal” museum. If so, what would such a place look like? Are there qualities all museums should possess? Are there aspects that no institution should have? Although there are no definite answers to such questions, I’ve taken the liberty of creating a list of four characteristics that all modern museums, in my experience, should possess.

Opportunities for immersion (and explanation!)

One of the most common things people want when visiting a museum or historic site is to experience a sense of escapism and immersion – to feel that they have entered a different time period. Historic sites obviously have an advantage over museums and galleries in this regard, but institutions such as the British Museum have done an excellent job of designing exhibits that resemble historic spaces as diverse as Greek temples, Sumerian palaces, and eighteenth-century libraries.

The Great Court at the British Museum.

The Great Court at the British Museum.

On the other hand, immersion in the sights, sounds, and textures of the past needs to be tempered with historical context and clear explanations through audio guides, info boards, and interpretive staff; a challenging balance that highly-protected historic sites such as the Roman Forum have difficulty achieving.

The outstanding ruins of the Roman Forum, with the Colosseum beyond.

The outstanding ruins of the Roman Forum, with the Colosseum beyond.

One of the most successful combinations of immersion and explanation that I encountered was The Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. The museum is comprised of two halves; the first half is the original house belonging to seventeenth-century artist Rembrandt van Rijn, expertly restored to its former glory with knowledgeable interpreters and hands-on demonstrations to boot. The second half is a modern gallery which features more detailed information about Rembrandt’s historical context and methods, as well as a large collection of his etchings.

A visitor tries their hand at historic etching techniques at Rembrandt's House Museum.

A visitor tries their hand at historic etching techniques at The Rembrandt House Museum.

Effective, sensible use of modern technology

The ubiquity of smartphones, tablet computers, GPS, and other technological innovations has permanently changed the way people learn and experience the world. This has created unprecedented opportunities for visitor engagement in museums, but is not without pitfalls. Touchscreens, apps, or audiovisual displays that are faulty, ill-placed, or difficult to use won’t be tolerated by an increasingly techno-savvy public. The use of modern technology in museums is a great way to connect with new audiences and keep exhibits relevant, but is best avoided if it cannot be well integrated or maintained.

Moving holograms in the Rijksmuseum.

Moving holograms in the Rijksmuseum.

One excellent example of technology used effectively that I encountered was at Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum. Re-opened in 2013 after 10 years of renovations, the institution is now a shining example of modern design and technology in a world-class museum. For example, their impressive collection of historic ship models are brought to life with detailed moving holograms, demonstrating the many activities that took place on a vessel.

The exterior of the Rijksmuseum, with bike paths running through the centre.

The exterior of the Rijksmuseum, with bike paths running through the centre.

Opportunities for rest and refreshment

Museum fatigue is a phenomenon that affects almost every museum visitor, even heritage professionals and museophiles such as myself. This combination of mental and physical exhaustion prevents guests from being able to enjoy and learn, often cutting visits short. That is why it is so important for large museums and historic sites to offer opportunities for rest and refreshment (especially outdoor space) which can be accessed at anytime during a visit. Some of the best examples of these amenities I found were in Rome.

Although this was not my first time in the Eternal City, I was thrilled to finally be able to visit the Vatican Museums on this trip. I knew the size would be overwhelming, the crowds enormous, and the collections astonishing. In all of these aspects I was not disappointed. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the several gardens, cafes, and resting places available throughout the museum complex. This allows visitors much-needed opportunities to reflect, relax, and put their weary feet up whilst exploring one of Europe’s largest institutions.

Surprisingly peaceful gardens in the Vatican Museum complex, with St. Peter's Basilica beyond.

Surprisingly peaceful gardens in the Vatican Museum complex, with St. Peter’s Basilica beyond.

A short walk from the Vatican, the ancient mausoleum and fort Castel Sant’Angelo features a cafe with great views of the city – a perfect way to relax after exploring this massive Roman site.

Castel Sant'Angelo

Castel Sant’Angelo

A clear and consistent photography policy

Debates have raged over photography rules in museums and galleries for years, and have been complicated even further by the recent advent of the selfie stick. Regardless of individual opinions about an institution’s photography policy, the regulations need to be clear and consistent. As a museum worker and a museum visitor, there is nothing more annoying or confusing than a photography policy that changes depending on what space you are in or which device you are using. Most people want to respect rules and boundaries, but they don’t want to have to constantly re-assess what those are during their visit. While it’s understandable that institutions want to allow photography as much as possible, in my experience, an “all or nothing” policy is usually best for everybody. Institutions such as Hampton Court Palace and the Vatican Museums allow photography in most areas, but not temporary exhibitions and the Chapel Royal in the case of Hampton Court, and the Sistine Chapel in the case of the Vatican. Although it is perfectly valid to ban photography in these instances, it does make it confusing for visitors (and a headache for staff) to police these changing rules in different areas. An institution-wide policy, such as the photography ban within Hever Castle, makes things easier for everyone.

Mid-click in the grounds of Hever Castle. Photography is only allowed outside of the building.

Your humble writer mid-click outside of Hever Castle. Photography is not allowed within the building.

Although there are many other wonderful features I encountered in my visits to European museums, these are four aspects that I believe are integral to an ideal visitor experience.

What additions or changes would you make to this list?

Jack the Ripper, ‘interesting history’ and masculine violence

Thought-provoking response to the new Jack the Ripper Museum in London, and current trends in public history. What do you think?

Lauren Johnson

The revelation that a museum promising to be ‘the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history’ is instead opening as a Jack the Ripper Museum – telling the story of a Victorian serial killer – has rightly sparked outrage and astonishment. But eschewing social history in favour of misogyny and murder is far from uncommon in our public historical storytelling. One of those behind this museum, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, explained his decision to change its focus:

‘We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.’

(You can read more of the original planning application here.)JRM pic

This project is only the furthest extreme of a general trend in historical presentation, which takes ‘interesting history’ to mean ‘violent and masculine’. I had…

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The Grant Museum

I’m sad that I will have to miss the Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London (my alma mater), so I thought I would share a link about it instead! The exhibition explores European depictions of newly “discovered” animals such as Dürer’s sixteenth-century Rhinoceros, and explores the ways in which artists, scientists, and the general public attempt to make sense of the new and the strange throughout history.

If you are in London before June 27 2015, please check it out on my behalf!

-Your Humble Writer