Mathematica Visitor Study


Accessibility, Museums, UX

A World of Numbers and Beyond

Prepared for the Boston Museum of Science
Contributions by Wendy Constantine, Daniel Elias, Gwen Frankfeldt, Abby Haskell, Bronwyn Low, and Lesley Schoenfeld

Problem to Solve

The compact and visually elegant exhibition Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond was designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1961 and continues to draw in and engage a wide range of visitors more than five decades later. The Boston Museum of Science wanted to better understand the attitudes and behaviors of today’s audiences to determine whether or not renovations should be made to the content and/or design to make the experience more current.

I was very pleased to be contacted by the office of Charles and Ray Eames requesting permission to post this report on their website under Scholar’s Walk: Notable Articles.

Constraints

A team of 6 researchers were involved in collecting data for this visitor study. 50 visitors were tracked and timed for a total of 8 hours.

Approach

Individually, the researchers spent time at the exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science. We conducted various types of studies including tracking and timing, exit surveys, exit interviews, component observations and a case study to answer the following questions:

  1. How does the dated nature of the exhibition affect visitors?
    • Does the audience recognize the importance of the exhibition as an “historical artifact”?
    • Is the historical/aesthetic character important to visitors?
    • Should changes be made to clearly communicate the dated nature of the exhibition and the resultant errors in information?
  2. Who comes to this exhibition?
    • What percentage of visitors work with mathematics in their daily lives?
    • Gather data on age, gender, group size and type of visitor population.
  3. How do people use the exhibits? Do groups interact in the exhibit?
    • Compare time spent and behaviors displayed at interactive and kinetic components with static, reading/looking elements.
    • How much time do visitors spend (as a whole, by age group, gender and group type) in the exhibition?
    • What exhibits are the most attractive and engaging?
    • Are there preferred pathways through the exhibition?
  4. What do people think of Mathematica?
    • Does the exhibition communicate a sense of wonder and excitement towards mathematics?
    • What elements are memorable?
    • Are the goals of the designers accomplished?
    • What elements do visitors report as the least and most enjoyable?
  5. What is the long-term impact of Mathematica?
    • For repeat visitors, what do they remember from previous visits?
    • Do they have memories or anecdotes about lasting effects in their lives?
    • Profile a case study.

Learnings

The exhibition can best be described as a Right AND Left-Brain Wonderland. The retro-modernist design aesthetic clearly reveals the elegance and beauty of numbers for visually-motivated learners. Analytical thinkers can process the abstract nature of the concepts displayed and make sense of the information in their own way. As found in Patricia Burda’s 1996 study, “Something for Everyone,” exhibits need to be accessible to audiences with different interests, education levels and abilities.

Mathematica provides this without speaking down to anyone. This is despite the fact that the exhibition was designed prior to universal design requirements. Even Static elements encourage active intellectual and aesthetic involvement with the exhibits, which most adults were either captivated by or disinterested. Children have many opportunities to interact with the exhibits on a physical level, although the “kinesthetic” of most exhibits could be higher to encourage deeper learning.

The longevity and dated style of the exhibition proved in the interviews to add to visitors’ fondness of Mathematica, and many considered it a “classic” that should not be changed. Improvements, however, including “fact” corrections and the inclusion of more hands-on activities should be considered. Audiences today continue to be drawn to Mathematica, and perhaps they are even better prepared to deal with the “information overload” aspect than audiences fifty years ago.

Read the complete version of the summative study: Mathematica_evaluation.pdf

Credits: Cover image by the Eames Office