Family Field Test: How Does NYC’s “MoMath” Museum Add Up?

by  Paul Eisenberg | Feb 5, 2013
NYC aerial view
NYC aerial view / Mak3t/iStock

If your family was wandering through New York City’s Flatiron District and stumbled across a museum you knew nothing about other than its name – in this case, the National Museum of Mathematics, aka MoMath – would you pay the admission ($16 for adults, $10 for children 12 and under; buy online for a $1 discount per ticket) and check it out simply because it looked interesting? My family went in for an undercover field test and here's what we found.

Methodology: Our research team consisted of my children, ages 13, 10, and 6; my wife, who holds a business degree and was also a math major in college (by choice); and me, somewhat math deficient and thankful every day that I married someone who isn’t. The five of us evaluated the museum on a 1-10 scale across the following four categories.

Variety and number of exhibits: 6
Sprinkled throughout MoMath’s street and lower levels are more than 30 interactive exhibits generously spaced within the museum’s almost 19,000 square-feet; younger kids who aren't interested in the exhibits will find this to be an ample indoor play space.

When you stand in front of the screen of the human fractal tree display (pictured above), multiple copies of your body begin replacing your arms, and more branches are created as your body multiplies onscreen. Two kids can create human trees at the same time and the nearby feedback fractals platform allows children to work mounted cameras at the same time. I did appreciate that most exhibits accommodated more than one child at a time, helpful while watching multiple kids in a large space.

MoMath Interactive Trikes / Paul Eisenberg

Playability of exhibits: 5
By playability, I’m referring to how well the exhibits and activities lend themselves to prolonged or repeated play during the span of a single visit. In the eyes of my brood, this is where the museum fell shortest. As with most interactive museums, some exhibits are much more playable than others. Aside from the fractal tree, the activity that invited the most repeat play among the younger set were the two square-wheeled tricycles that “roll” seamlessly in circles because the track is made of “catenary curves that keep the wheel axles perfectly level,” according to the museum.

The mathenaeum activity kiosk lent itself to the most prolonged play. You use a trackball and a neat, nautical-looking throttle to change the color and design of different shapes. This proved to be a bit tricky for my younger kids, but my teen was engaged by it.

Effectiveness of museum staff: 7.5
I find most staffers who work museum floors to be cheerful, and those I encountered here were earnest about explaining anything I wanted to know. My younger daughter did take issue when a staffer told her it was time to get off the square-wheeled trike even though there was no one else waiting to use it. My six-year-old son gave the staff a 10, not just because he’s a nice kid, but he also had a particularly good experience with a staff person who showed him how the red laser in the wall of fire could be beamed through clear plastic shapes as well as his own body.

Fun factor: 6.4
Here I asked everyone to rate how much fun they had during our visit, which in turn would be an indicator of whether or not we would revisit the museum. My wife and I already decided we would go back – perhaps without the kids, so we could focus more on some of the exhibits. It surprised me when my teen rated the museum low on fun because at times she seemed more engaged than any of us. When I asked her she said, “I was engaged, I just didn’t find it all that fun.” Spoken like an honors math student and a teen who doesn’t pull any punches.

I added up the scores from each category and divided by four to find the average. Math!

Based on our visit, I have a couple recommendations:

The museum space is well organized and exhibits are attractive, but the space could use a little more “connective tissue” or overall themes to tie exhibits together. Additionally, when entering the museum for the first time, you don’t necessarily know there’s a lower level until you see the staircase, so bit more signage wouldn’t hurt.

For more trip planning ideas, check out our New York City guide.

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