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The National Museum of Mathematics’s Overnight Evolution: Cindy Lawrence Tells Us the Remarkable Story of How One Museum Remade Itself in the Wake of the Pandemic

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Cindy Lawrence Momath

First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?

Cindy Lawrence: Like many families, we are taking things day by day and hoping for a return to better times.

Tell us about you, your career, how you joined The National Museum of Mathematics

Cindy Lawrence: The story begins about 12 years ago, in 2008, when I volunteered with a group that wanted to open a museum of math. I offered to head up the committee that would design a traveling math exhibition, the Math Midway, for launch at the 2009 World Science Festival in NYC. On the heels of that successful launch, I became more and more involved, first organizing a tour of the exhibit around the country and then working to open a permanent location in Manhattan. Ultimately, I quit my job and began working for the Museum full time, helping to design innovative exhibits and create engaging programs that would resonate with an audience of non-mathematicians (as well as math experts) and demonstrate the wonder and beauty of mathematics to all.

How does The National Museum of Mathematics innovate?

Cindy Lawrence: MoMath innovates by finding ways to showcase the world of mathematics in ways that are surprising, elegant, and highly engaging. We stay away from an emphasis on calculation and arithmetic, focusing instead on providing highly enjoyable, oftentimes transformational, experiences to our audience; by showing how math is embedded in the world around us; and ultimately, by illustrating that math is a human experience that is made even more compelling when it is shared and enjoyed with others.

How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting your business, and how are you coping?

Cindy Lawrence: Due to the pandemic, the Museum closed its doors to the public in mid-March. We had started thinking about a possible closure weeks before, at a time when it seemed unnecessarily alarmist — but I wanted to be ready, just in case. So when things suddenly shut down, we didn’t miss a beat — our first online field trip actually took place on the same day as our last in-person field trip. Our robust events infrastructure allowed us to continue our innovative programming, moving directly to an online platform instead of hosting events in person. We’ve found that our audience has grown, from being primarily based in the NY-metro area to now, including people worldwide in almost 90 different countries.

Financially, things are less rosy. We decided to offer many programs entirely for free and have reduced the prices of other programs, so our earned income has declined to near zero while our expenses continue largely unabated. Thanks to the support of some generous donors, we can continue operating. We hope to continue to provide engaging programming that will help everyone — adults, children, students, educators, and families — get through this difficult time together.

Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?

Cindy Lawrence: Difficult choices primarily revolve around finances; we’ve had to find ways to reduce costs while maintaining programs at a high level of quality. 

We’ve learned a lot about engaging with people in an online world; it takes extra effort to make that human, personal connection remotely, but it’s also more important now than ever.

How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and The National Museum of Mathematics in the future?

Cindy Lawrence: Focusing on the positive is really important now. With so much tragedy, civil unrest, and uncertainty amidst a backdrop where so many social connections have been reduced, it is even more important to find ways to engage with and support each other. 

MoMath hopes to continue to maintain an online presence even after we reopen the physical museum. We are delighted to have an even broader geographic audience than we had before, and we will work hard to continue to serve both our physical and virtual audiences.

Who are your competitors, and how do you plan to stay in the game?

Cindy Lawrence: Delightfully, the science center and museum industries are extremely collaborative. I regularly speak with other executive directors, and we share experiences, challenges, and ideas. Of course, as the only math museum in North America and the only hands-on science center in Manhattan, we hope that people will continue to find us an interesting and enjoyable place to visit, both in-person and online. And we continue to push the envelope in terms of innovation; for example, we are currently hosting a groundbreaking virtual art show (alternativeperspective.momath.org) that allows the user to interact with the artwork in an engaging and unusual way.

Any final thoughts?

Cindy Lawrence: MoMath staff have been wonderfully flexible, stepping up to take on roles and responsibilities that, in some cases, are very different from what they were doing prior to the pandemic. The overnight transformation from a highly physical, interactive museum to a provider of engaging online programming simply would not have been possible without the tremendous effort of the entire MoMath team.

Your website?

momath.org

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