In creating a new museum from a zero base, as we are doing for the Museum of Mathematics (MUMA), there are first things, second things, and other things which are required to be actioned.
MUMA is planned to be a world-class museum, meeting world-wide best practices for all aspects of the museum operations. This means that we need to address at least three specific core practices: (1) How we establish a governance structure, for a long-lasting sustainable entity, (2) What collections we maintain, and how we protect these to be of benefit for future generations of users, and (3) How we service the needs of our users.
Our intention is to both carry out these functions and also to document these as we progress, so that this will not only provide a running commentary for those who are interested, but through this we can help to contribute to the knowledge of new museum creation practices.
The approaches used are based upon our experience with other museums, such as we teach in our workshop on museum governance The approach also draws heavily on international best-practices and museum accreditation structures, such as those of the National Arts Council (UK) scheme.
Since there is no national museum accreditation scheme in South Africa we are thus using the international experience as a guide.
Action 1 : Establishing a governance structure
This will be addressed in the next post in this series, and concerns the development of our legal entity, governance documents, boards of trustees, strategies, policies, budgets, and procedures, as well as compliance with a range of external codes, such as King III, and the ICOM Code of Ethics.
One key element of the governance is to determine who we are, what we do, and for whom we do it. There must be some significant benefit which our users will get, and the governance structures are driven by a mission and a corresponding strategy, to deliver these benefits.
Action 3 : Maximising the User Experience
The third action concerns how to identify our users and visitors, and to provide them with the best possible experience to meet their needs. These users have come to us with certain expectations, and we want to make sure that they leave us with a better-than-expected experience, to encourage repeat visits, and to enhance the potential for word-of-mouth increase in our user numbers. This will be addressed later in this series.
Action 2 : Developing the Appropriate Collections
For today, our focus is on our collections and how we plan to develop and maintain these collections.
All museums start life with some collections, generally collected by some passionate person, and then made available to the public through a museum. To get MUMA started we are using a donation of books and equipment, as well as a range of digital resources.
We have identified that there are two kinds of collection we will need: physical collections, consisting of equipment and materials; and digital collections, consisting of documents, images and others which are available in digital form.
Our collections are informed by a Collection Management Policy document, which is produced as part of our governance work. This policy is itself divided into parts to address the key elements of best practice Collection Management:
- Collection Development Policy: what we collect, why and how; and what we do with things we do not want.
- Collection Care Policy: how we look after our collections, both physical and digital, to ensure the greatest resilience against loss and damage over time.
- Collection Information Policy: how we record what we have, and to what level, including our policy on digitisation.
- Collection Access Policy: how we provide access to the collections, through exhibitions, web sites, loans, etc…
To coordinate our activities in developing our collections, we have structured each of our collections into a specific Programme of work for MUMA. Over time we hope to have people to assist us with some of all of these programmes, based upon their area of speciality.
Mathematics is primarily an area of pure knowledge, but throughout human history we have found it useful to create objects, equipment, and materials to help us do mathematics and to teach mathematics.
These physical collections are objects, documents, and audio-visual materials which are required to be physically stored and maintained. As a result, they are subject to deterioration, and must be maintained in as best a condition as possible to ensure longevity.
Measurement tools and equipment
From the start of human history there was a need to measure things, such as lengths, weights, distances, directions, time, rainfall, heat, … and methods were developed to standardise these so that we all agree on these measures. Some of these are regarded as “fundamental measures” which are primary properties which can be compared between objects. For example, we can compare the weight of two bags of potatoes to see which is the heavier. Even though both may say 10kg on the outside, we know there there can never be exactly 10kg.
This collection consists of physical items whose purpose is to provide a measure of something. Starting with a simple ruler, or tape measure, and then exploring laser-based digital measures of length and distance are used by surveyors. Or the measurement of angles using a sextant, which formed the primary tool for navigation on the high seas before the advent of GPS, and which still is the back-up system in case GPS fails.
The goals are to identify all types of measures, and to collect equipment which can be used to support measurement, both from the earliest days of measurement (such as using our feet as one unit, and the thumb (inch) as a smaller unit which gave rise to the Imperial system of Yard, Feet and Inches) right up to the present day of digital measurement systems, such as measuring our heart rate through wearable devices.
Measurement, and associated manipulation and calculation with measures, is an important area of school-level mathematics, to help to develop proficiency in school-leavers on real-world understanding of our world in terms of how this world is measured. For example, a question such as “how much paint do I need to purchase to paint my room?” will require the measurement of the room surface area to be painted.
Calculating tools and equipment
Mathematical calculations are often complex and prone to mistakes. However for the vast history of mathematics, covering more than 4000 years, it is only relatively recently that we have been able to perform calculations with ease.
It took considerable innovation in mechanical engineering to create the first mechanical calculators, which were the norm for many years, and we have a number in our collection such as an early 1900 devices which was used to perform additions, subtractions, multiplications, and divisions at a rate faster than performing these calculations manually.
In the 1970s we saw the emergence of the first electronic calculators, and these are now small units which every learner will have, and which perform hundreds of possible calculations. We take these for granted and yet they are exceptionally powerful devices compared to what our grandparents had available to them in school.
Whereas this also gives rise to the digital computer, we will not be exploring computers as part of our collection, but will limit ourselves to the calculating devices which are special-purpose to support mathematical calculations.
Teaching of mathematics has always been a challenge, and throughout history a range of innovative approaches have been developed which make use of various educational materials to enhance learning. It is often better for learners to see something physically, such as counting with blocks, rather than to simple use only symbols and numbers.
These materials and tools include the typical mathematical sets which are used for geometric work, as well as materials which can be purchased commercially to help the teacher be more effective in their work.
Library of Textbooks
One major area of interest has been the development of textbooks over the years of mathematics education. The most well-known mathematics textbook is the Element of Euclid, published first 2500 years ago, and which remained as the main mathematics text for more than 2300 years. It it still available in various forms, and you could find this in many major bookshop.
The purpose of this collection is to provide the basis for inquiries into how textbooks have changed over the years, and how they are influenced by curriculum statements.
Library of Mathematical Texts and Archival Materials
Another library will be created for mathematical texts which are deemed useful. It is not the purpose to collect every mathematical text ever printed, but rather to limit these to those which meet the requirements of the user base. This will include paper copies of documents which may be digitised into one of the digital collections, such as examination papers.
Archives of Mathematicians
Finally, our physical collections will consist of archival material which we plan to collect from the works of local mathematicians.
We find that when mathematicans pass on, their families may not know what to do with their (mostly large) collections of books, articles, notes, etc…, much of which may be in digital form. It is our goal to provide a home for this, so that future researchers may want to pick up their work in the future.
All mathematicians will have much unfinished work, since there is no end to mathematics, and we consider that the preservation and archiving of this to be a valuable contribution to society.
Concerning digital collections, these are already being collected in a variety of forms, to support ease of access by the users, and to provide an authoritative source of digital content.
A knowledge collection is intangible, since these are neither physical or digital, such as a collection of theorems or mathematical notations.
The digital collections we have structured at present include the following:
- Examination Papers: a collection of digitised examination papers, as well as those which are born digital
- Mathematical Notations and Terms: a database and repository of mathematical notations, and the words and phrases used to describe mathematics, to serve as a common reference point to help teachers and learners.
- Mathematical Images: all pictures and diagrams which help to illustrate mathematics and which will form a gallery of images.
- Biographies of Mathematicians: developing a biographical repository of local South African, and broader African, mathematicians.
- Mathematical Jokes: which provide an excellent way to teach some fundamental concepts in a light manner.
- Famous Mathematical Problems: which have proved to be useful to help learners in specific areas of mathematics. Below I introduce one of these.
For each of our collections we are structuring a Programme Statement and are publishing these onto this web site. These indicate our programme goals for each of the collections, the outcomes we expect, and how we propose to build up the collections.
Here is a problem which was given by Polya in 1945. See if you can solve it.
“A bear walks South for 1km, then East for 1km, and then North for 1km, ending up where it started.
What is the colour of the bear?”
And yes, this IS a mathematical problem.