MμMα #2: Identifying Users

In blog #1, I identified the Museum of Mathematics, MμMα, and I provided an initial vision of what we are proposing for this new institution in the museum landscape of South Africa. I specifically noted that this will be both a physical and a digital museum, with the digital being the lead and the physical space to follow. In that initial blog I also make a request for other institutions to collaborate with us by sharing the knowledge of their own mathematical holdings, such as measurement equipment, adding equipment, and indigenous designs.

I now turn my attention to the issue of the user community, in order to understand who is likely to benefit from MμMα and how we can address these needs by making the collections and the knowledge accessible.

Know the users, their needs and potential benefits

Every museum holds items and objects, and it uses these to tell stories. It holds these objects and tells these stories the benefit of its users.

So before we can plan anything in our new Museum of Mathematics we need to understand who are these users, what they want, and how to engage with them.

For us, like all other museums, there are a standard set of user groups, and it is the balance between these groups and the specific needs of the groups, which helps us to define what we do. We cannot do everything for everyone, and it is important to be realistic in what needs and expectations we can provide as we start up, and also how we may be able to increase what we do over time as the user base grows, and as they start to demand more from us.

For most museums, the engagement with the majority of users, such as tourists and school children, is limited to a 1-2 hour tour. In the vast majority of cases there is little engagement either before or after such a visit. The visitors will often forget their experiences quickly as they engage with other activities and their lives. We want to change this, and to provide a longer-term engagement through providing access to relevant materials to simulate mathematical awareness, thinking and proficiency, and ideally to instil a wonder and love of mathematics for some who engage with us.

There is no direct way to assess what the users of MμMα will want, and the only approach to identify the various types and sectors of the users is to anticipate them in advance, and then to direct the marketing efforts to bringing these various groups into the museum, both digitally and physically.

  • learners: school-level learners are all required to take a mathematical subject up to Grade 12, and I see this as by far the largest community of potential users of the museum. Whereas MμMα will be presenting mathematics and mathematical knowledge, it is not the intention that this is a one-stop shop for all of mathematics, but rather should complement existing teaching and learning, as well as to collaborate in the research domain. For the learners, which should be extended to include adult learners as well as children, the goal is to instill a sense of the power and importance of mathematics, and to create the wonder that inspires these learners to want to explore the world of mathematics furthers. I believe that we will have succeeded if we manage to dispel the common notion that mathematics is a “hard” subject, and to replace this sentiment with mathematics as being a subject worth knowing, and potentially existing in its ability to model the world. MμMα must engage with the learners at many levels, including digitally through the web site, and physically through the visits, and ideally we should be developing a long-term relationship with the learners, and providing sufficient interest that they keep coming back. One way in which this may be possible is to appeal to the learners in terms of things which they normally engage with in life, such as games, music, and sport, and to explore the mathematical elements of these activities.
  • teachers and teacher education: to engage the teachers by providing resources to assist them with ideas on presenting certain ideas to their classes. Teacher will have access to a large array of materials already, and MμMα will complement these resource, and in particular concerning the historical development of mathematical ideas and can then point the learners to the MμMα web site for further information, and can arrange visits to MμMα.
  • interested non-learners: there are a range of people who have developed an interest in mathematics and yet are not scholars or professional mathematicians. I see this group as becoming heavily engaged as volunteers and in helping to increase the content and the holdings of the museum, and in helping to describe the objects and to establish authenticity and provenance. For example, perhaps we obtain an old working mechanical calculating machine, in which multiplication is conducted by many turns of a handle. Our volunteer group can then explore how this can be used in practice and to describe its operation. I see the volunteers as also providing support as tour guides, both digital and physical.
  • tourists: the physical MμMα site will be a worthy place to visit for tourists, much as have other museums and heritage sites been long a core activity for all visitors in all countries throughout the world. I have the visits that such visits will not be merely coming to look at a range of objects in glass cabinets and reading the labels, but will be far more engaging at the physical level, with activities which bring the visitor into touch with the museum and its messages.
  • professional mathematicians and university research: I expect that we will not be ale to meet the needs of advanced mathematics in our initial work but interesting topics in advanced mathematics would be important when they can be conveyed for everyone to understand. One example is topology, which from a mathematical perspective is quite advance, and yet can be conveyed using Möbius strips and Klein Bottles (look these up) which both challenge our common understanding that a strip of paper has a front-side and a back-side, and a bottle has an inside and an outside. These are exhibited at the Science Museum in London and show that mathematics is not just numbers and letters, but also involves problems of shapes and relationships.
  • other museums: I hope for a strong engagement with a large number of other museums and memory institutions, both locally and internationally, in building up mathematics and its history as a shared experience, rather than having every museum display one small piece of mathematical history. In this way the collaborating museums are also identified and will attract more visitors, and MμMα will benefit from access to a vast resource of shared knowledge from the wider community.

What makes MμMα different?

MμMα is a museum primarily, although like many modern museums will be structured as both a digital and a physical museum, and will offer a range of user experiences.

From the visitor and user perspective it is important for us to define in advance the nature of the user engagement, and how we will differ from other museums and memory institution, and also how we will differ from other mathematical resources that are available in the country.

The key features of MμMα which differentiate it from others are:

  • a focus on mathematics in its widest definition
  • a focus on the uses of mathematics including the range of computing equipment
  • a dynamic and engaging experience for visitors to the (future) physical museum
  • a digital museum with a long-reach into the user community
  • a strong engagement with the user community beyond the visits to the site
  • a long-term relationship with users, with mutual benefits
  • an engagement with a community of volunteers who are passionate about mathematics and who can pass this passion onto the visitors
  • a well-funded enterprise, with a strong funding strategy and commited funders.

Using this information on the users and visitors which we will expect, it is now possible to establish a structure for the entity of MμMα – what it is and how it will be governed and managed. Also, as objects are being made available, it is important to establish an accessions system to provide control over the inventory and to commence the process of gathering information about these objects.