Passing through London last week I took the opportunity to drop into the Science Museum to take a look at the newly-opened mathematics gallery I’ve long been interested in maths communication, and when I was at The Centre for Life, worked closely with Noel Jackson to establish it as an internationally recognised centre of excellence for hands-on maths. I also harboured an unrealised ambition to create a hands-on maths exhibition for the centre so I particularly wanted to see this to find out how the Science Museum tackled it.
Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the exhibition is certainly visually impressive, with the centrepiece exhibit, the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’ aircraft, surrounded by visualisations of the airflow over its wings, dominating the space, and a vibrant pink and grey colour scheme avoiding cliché images of mathematics. It is a very pleasant space to be in, friendly, calm and relaxed, and sports an impressive array of historic objects related to maths, both tools used in the doing of maths, and artefacts, such as ship designs, and the aforementioned aircraft, that could only have been made using the kind of calculating tools on display. This really, gets to the crux of the gallery, it’s not really about maths as such; it is an exhibition of tools used to make calculations easier to do over the centuries, from the abacus to quantum computers, and objects demonstrating the kind of products the use of these made possible. It is very much a classic ‘collection in cases with illuminating labels’ exhibition; apart from touch screens enabling you to explore the stories of some of the objects in greater depth, it is not interactive in any way at all. Also, there is no actual maths to speak of in the exhibition, there are no sums or equations in any of the exhibition text, and when maths techniques are mentioned, for the most part, it is assumed that the visitor knows what they are. There is absolutely no opportunity to explore maths directly in a hands-on way.
Having said that though, I did not mind this at all, I am all in favour of an exhibition that knows what it wants to do. It is far more like the kind of show you would see at the Wellcome Collection than Wonderlab, and is clearly intended to appeal primarily to adult visitors with high science capital and to showcase interesting pieces of technology from the collection. The Science Museum is large enough to accommodate this kind of exhibition alongside more populist offerings, and, I would say, has an obligation to do so. That it does not treat these more specialised galleries as less worthy of serious investment than the popular family spaces is particularly welcome. As an unashamed science geek, I absolutely loved it.
A couple of small caveats – much has been made of the Hadid-designed swirls around the aircraft and how they represent airflow, but in the gallery there is nothing obvious to tell you this, and the text applied as transfers to some of the panels and cases is wearing off already and needs replacing, but I would hope that the post-opening snagging will catch these, as it would be a pity to leave things as they are.
So, this is a very good exhibition on the historic material culture of calculating technology, but it still leaves plenty of room for a completely different kind of maths exhibition. There is nothing in Europe to compare to the Exploratorium’s Geometry Playground, for example, and an exhibition taking that kind of immersive interactive approach to maths would be a real winner. The kind of rich-task mathematics activities that were such a success at Life point the way to some really interesting possibilities for the future, and one which might finally give the slightly neglected ‘M’ in STEM the prominence it deserves.