Photo Post – M.C. Escher Edition

A couple of weeks ago, I had a unique opportunity to view some of the works by artist and mathematician M.C. Escher at the National Gallery of Art. These pieces are currently not on display at the museum and our viewing was in a small group with no glass in the way.

It was a real geeky session for me and the other the math teachers in the group, even if we only got about 30 minutes. Below are a few photos of the pieces, with the rest (plus a couple of shots from elsewhere in the East building) in this gallery. 

Lineup 2

Part of the collection we were allowed to view up close and without glass. I’m sure the curators were a little nervous but no one in our group messed up anything.

Ascending and Descending

A close up of a section of one of M. C. Escher’s most recognizable works, an amazingly detailed lithograph called Ascending and Descending.

Devils and Angels

Later in his career, Escher also worked in three dimensions. In this piece, he duplicates on a sphere his original two-dimensional tessellation showing angels interspersed with devils.

Hand with Reflecting Sphere

One of several self-portraits by Escher, this one with the artist reflected in a mirrored ball.

Picture Post #13

It’s been more than a month since I posted pictures to this space so here are a few of my better ones from that time. As always, a larger collection of my photographs are in my Flickr feed, at least until Yahoo has their fire sale.

Cooling Off

On a hot June day, this young lady enjoyed cooling off by walking through the water feature in the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery. Most adults just walked around it.

Lighter. Simpler. Faster

This is a 50’s era “portable” reel-to-reel audio recorder used by Voice of America reporters. It’s part of a display on the history of the organization in their Washington DC headquarters.

Guitar Player

The guitarist was part of a jazz quartet that provided music during an open house at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. The Building is undergoing extensive renovation and will soon reopen with a history of world’s fairs held in both the US and other countries.

The Old Post Office Pavilion

The Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC is being renovated into a luxury hotel to open sometime later this year. It will be a long time before I will be able to apply the new name to the building without gagging. :-)

Taking My Money Elsewhere

Over the past couple of years, I’ve complained at the Smithsonian more than a few times for doing a rather poor job. Or at least what I see as their job, which is to educate and inform their visitors in the most engaging and interactive way possible.

Although I’m a “friend” of the museum, my annual contribution is not nearly big enough for their administration to care much when I point out their problems and threaten to drop my membership. So, they probably didn’t notice this month when I renewed at a much lower level.

I’m pretty sure that action will trigger a reaction from the computer that regularly spits out the materials asking for more money. It will note what I’ve done with digital sadness and ask me, more than a few times, if I want to reconsider for the sake of this great institution.

What it will not do is cause anyone at the Smithsonian to take a more reflective look at their mission, instead of spending on more public relations. It would be nice to have the kind of money to make that happen.

Give ’em a C+ for Effort

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*.

The Band

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.  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. 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.

Seriously Amazing Public Relations

If you’ve ever spent more than a day in Washington, DC, chances are you also spent some time in at least one of the many museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution.

So, what did you think of that experience?

The people running the Smithsonian wanted to know as well and recently completed the “first in-depth research in almost 20 years” to determine how visitors viewed the 165 year old organization.  Researchers found their name recognition was way down and that people used words like “elitist” and “antiquated” to describe the institution. I think “boring” and “lacking involvement” also apply.

It would be wonderful if the Smithsonian took those findings (and maybe a few of my suggestions) as a great opportunity to improve their exhibits, presentations, and activities. A chance to update their educational mission out of the 1950’s lecture/demo, static display approach they are currently so fond of.

However, this is Washington, and around here, we don’t improve the product, we work on making better public relations.

According to an in-house document obtained by The Washington Post, a branding campaign was ordered “to help us change the way people see us. And to place more emphasis on what we do instead of on what we have.” The branding idea was an outgrowth of a strategic plan developed last year. The Smithsonian spent $1 million for research and creation of the slogan.

That new slogan? “Seriously Amazing”

Seriously? You paid one million bucks to arrive at calling yourselves “seriously amazing”?