In 2018, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum here in DC started a seven-year, billion-dollar project to expand and completely modernize the building and exhibits. In the time since, the museum has been closed to the public, with construction continuing during most of the pandemic.
The week of Thanksgiving I took advantage of the tourist lull to visit the new Fossil Hall at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. More frequently called the Dinosaur Hall, the space reopened last June following more than three years of construction and was pretty crowded for the first few months after the grand reveal.
The new exhibition (that’s the main hall at the top) is certainly brighter and more open than the previous version. The layout is better. Information for each display is well written and interesting. As you would expect from the Smithsonian, the hall features some very impressive artifacts.
I’ve complained about the Smithsonian Institution more than a few times in this space, specifically about how they do a rather crappy job of educating their visitors, something that should be a primary focus for any museum.
So I was very interested to see a new exhibition called Math Alive that opened last month and about which, I received seven or eight excitedly worded messages, both by regular and electronic mail, from the museum’s marketing department*.
I’d like to say this is a good start for making the Smithsonian a more interactive learning place but unfortunately, the exhibit is far more misses than hits. Â For one thing, it’s not really the start of anything since Math Alive is only a temporary installation, closing less than three months after opening.
Even worse, the exhibit probably won’t be visited by many in their target demographic, families with upper elementary or middle school kids. It’s located in a small space three stories below the mall in a building that is mostly used for offices and meetings.Â Not in Air and Space, Natural History, or American History, the museums in DC visited by millions each year.
The only redeeming factor of it’s location is that the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, which presents a variety of children’s programming, is right down the hall. So maybe a few families will take a look at Math Alive before or after the performances they’ve paid to attend.
I’m sure the Smithsonian education staff has been soliciting schools to bring groups of students to visit Math Alive but they’re not likely to get many takers considering we are well into testing season around here and nothing, not even field trips for interactive learning, gets in the way of that.
As to the exhibit itself, the “40 interactives” that “brings to life the real math behind some of the activities children like”, again offers more misses than hits. While a few of the installations are very effective and engaging, most seem to be more about flash and noise than learning mathematical concepts.
Many of the “interactives” are really no better than the web-based activities kids could use in their browser at home. And at least two of the displays, including a centerpiece interactive, were not even working when I visited on the second day the exhibit was open.
Anyway, at this point I guess I’m supposed to give the Smithsonian curators an A for effort and move on. However, considering all the pieces of Math Alive that don’t work (and aside from the technical problems), I’m not sure the designers deserve more than a C+ for both effort and execution.
*Full disclosure: I am a member of the Smithsonian and a donor, although at a relatively low level. Certainly not high enough to influence policies and exhibitions.
The picture is The Band, from my Flickr stream, and shows part of a Math Alive exhibit (another view is here) that’s supposed to connect math and music. It’s one that generates more noise than understanding.