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MathsWorldUK: plans for a UK maths museum

Mathematics is like marmite: either you love it or hate it. Most people who hate it do so because ‘it’s too hard’ or ask ‘what’s the point’, while those who love it tend to be those who use the subject in the workplace or are studying it. Will mathematics always be like this, or is there a way to change the perception of maths and make it more fun and appealing?

MathsWorldUK has a plan to develop a museum dedicated to mathematics in the UK. The idea behind this is to provide the public with a chance to see how mathematics is used within our society, and experience the discoveries mathematicians have made – for themselves.

John Bibby, a member of the MWUK Management Group, says

We want to give people the buzz of tackling and solving problems, but also to get beyond that moment of fun and entertainment and help foster a sustained interest in maths.

MWUK is in discussions with the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester with a view to establishing an initial base. “Within 20 years,” says Bibby, “we hope to have 12 to 20 centres nationwide, so that 90% of the population is within an hour of a centre.”

The idea of a maths museum – or ‘exploratorium,’ as MathsWorld prefers – may sound a little odd. After all, maths is a rather abstract subject– and one often perceived as dull or boring. Even mathematicians would admit that, compared to chemistry or astronomy, we’re a bit short on explosions and bad smells.

In the UK many people will have visited the Science Museum which incorporates some mathematical displays such as mathematical drawing instruments and analogue computers from the 17th and 18th centuries. The instruments on display can be seen at the Science museum website. The British Museum (also in London) and the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford also highlight mathematical implements going back centuries, while there are science centres in Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol and many other cities around the country.

Internationally, there are Mathematics museums in many countries already: Germany has the Mathematikum in Giessen, while South Korea’s maths museum is in Seoul; even Palestine has a Meet-Math Museum at Al Quds University. These museums are dedicated to providing a ‘hands-on’ experience of solving geometric puzzles, musical compositions, the history of mathematics and historical items such as calculating machines and instruments. In the last few months, New York has got in on the act with its Museum of Mathematics, and the working group which set MoMath up has compiled a comprehensive list of maths museums on its website.

As Geoff Wain, who is leading the initiative, says in New Scientist: ”Every other subject has a variety of cultural and educational hubs for people to visit, so why not maths?”

The question remains, can we make mathematics more appealing by opening a museum dedicated to it? Without opening one, we may never know.

If you’d like to help develop exhibits for MathsWorldUK, please email John Bibby: jb43@york.ac.uk.

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