Concerns about MoMATH

I was so excited with the Museum of Mathematics opened in NYC. I attended a zillion lectures they had with math teacher friends before they had the space ready and a zillion lectures after they had their space ready. I even convinced some of my students to attend with me and another teacher, and we got to bond over math.

I encouraged some of my students to enter the contest for the Strogatz Prize for Math Communication at the end of last year. Even recently, I went to a wonderful virtual event they held called Bending the Arcwhich featured a panel of Black mathematicians and scientists and allowed participants to talk with them more intimately in smaller groups in breakout rooms. The name for the session came from Martin Luther King Jr.’s quotation which I sincerely hope is true: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

(The reason I mention that is because previously the museum had planned an event in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. day which somehow connected his “Letter from a Birminham Jail” to a session devoted to the Prisoner’s Dilemma problem. For so many reasons, this was a poor decision that I was surprised no one caught when setting it up.)

Also, over the years, I had heard grumblings about the museum from people who worked there or volunteered there as interns. Recently someone shared with me a letter that was sent to the Museum of Math’s Board of Directors that was concerning.

Letter to MoMath Board

My understanding was it was written a while ago, but only recently shared with the Board. I’ve been told that it is now officially okay to make this letter public. It’s short, but packs a punch. Here is the top-line conclusion, written in a signed letter by two former “Chiefs of Mathematics” at the Museum along with others who work/ed there. 

“With respect to our educational mission, race and class discrimination are embedded in the Museum’s practices.”

To me, knowing that there are multiple people — including people who were high up in the organization — who felt the need to write an open letter to describe some of their concerns speaks volumes to me. They didn’t have to. It is easier not to. It puts them at some risk, publicly speaking out. 

To me, one of the most problematic charges in the letter is that students from Title 1 schools who visit MoMATH often get lessons that end up being 20-25 minutes instead of the normal 45 minute sessions. The letter states “We cannot remain silent while the Museum chooses to offer sub par services forthe least fortunate students who are vastly more likely to be people of color.” I hope that with this letter, those at the Museum take a close look at their practices to ensure there is equity for all the students visiting the Museum. To me, more than anything else, this is of paramount importance before the museum opens its doors again. 

Also damning is this paragraph:

Unfortunately, the Museum actively discourages any form of negative feedback, and the staff has virtually no autonomy. This repressive culture has been described on social media and in the many letters you have received from former employees about mismanagement, abuse of hours, and general lack of respect for staff. In fact, the Museum’s formal Employee Policies Document warns staff members against contacting the Board. Staff members who have advocated for improvements in the Museum’s operations have seen obstacles set up in their paths and have been pressured out or fired. The rapid turnover of MoMath staff, which has an average tenure of less than a year and a half, is evidence of this. Joe Quinn, former Chief of Mathematics for MoMath, was fired shortly after expressing his opposition to the discriminatory provision of education services to Title 1 schools. We believe this to be unlawful retaliation against him

It is important for an organization which promotes diversity and inclusion to make sure that concerns can be heard safely, that feedback can be given. To these letter writers, it sounds like that hasn’t been the case and there is a culture at the museum which sounds, frankly, oppressive.

I went to GlassDoor, to see reviews of the museum from people who work there.

15

Most museums I looked at had star ratings in the 3+. (I recognize that those who leave reviews on GlassDoor are likely to be those who have a lot to say in either direction.) It was disheartening to read through the reviews

I only hope that this letter prompts some sort of investigation into the working conditions at the museum. How long do people work there? Why do they leave? Are employees being taken advantage of in terms of their hours worked? At the very least, this letter suggests that the Board can and should look into this. 

 

8 comments

  1. Does the Museum have any justification for shortening the programs for Title one students?

    One would think that given the (undoubtedly) high number of such students in schools in NYC that pushing for longer programs would be a boon financially for the Museum. If they provide a valuable and engaging program focused on remediation and such students that their sessions would be regularly packed.

    I don’t make it to NYC like I once did, but the Math Museum has always been on my list of places to visit. Now, I have misgivings.

    1. Honestly, don’t bother. I went a while back, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and was met with what I can unequivocally say is the worst museum I’ve ever been to. Everything in it, including the employees, felt sad and broken. Several exhibits didn’t even work, and the others were poorly conceived, poorly explained, and many of them just rehashes of others (HOW many exhibits on tessellation do you need? Eight? Ten?). I usually nerd out in museums like that, but I couldn’t find enough to keep myself occupied for even an hour. I got to wondering if anyone involved in the place had ever come into contact with math before, or perhaps they had a secret wish to destroy the curiosity of children.

      I had a more joyous time at the holocaust museum in Los Angeles.

      The gift shop is rather excellent though.

      1. I’m not surprised, Alex, but what a bummer. I worked at MoMath from before it opened, through the first year of opening (~16 months tenure in total). In the downtime pre-opening, I got training on some exhibits and researched the rest. I even wrote a teachers’ guide to the museum, which tied every exhibit into math at grade levels K, 4, 8, and HS (how would you talk to a K student about hyperbolic planes?). Guide never saw the light of day, because I was only a licensed, experienced math teacher (K-8 certified, master’s degree) and not a holder of a math PhD. A few years later, I ran a club for teachers to go on weekend field trips to museums around the city to model field trip best practices. I brought my club to MoMath and gave them a behind the scenes tour and ended up getting a group of about 20 people following behind me exploring the quirks of my favorite exhibits (the parabolic multiplication sculpture in the staircase is my favorite super random math thing I didn’t know before working at MoMath!). The potential is there but the staff are overworked and underpaid and driven out long before they can build expertise so the average person you interact with is miserable and not knowledgeable. Also, they stay open 364 days/year (pre-COVID) leaving no time for critical exhibit maintenance…

  2. The one time I took students the tour seemed rushed and the activities seemed fun but either non transparent and rushed or too easy. Students were not impressed. I always thought that somehow it was me not doing enough research/planning but now reading your information I wonder if we were rushed through as Title 1. Thanks for sharing. Food for thought, sadly.

    1. As a former staff member, I can say it was not your fault. I only was able to visit the Museum once or twice – you read that correctly, as an office worker I was not allowed on the Museum floor during my working hours, which meant I hardly ever went to the Museum. When I did, I had no clue how anything worked, and could not figure out whether it was because I didn’t know enough math, or if it was because the exhibit was broken. I love to bring my friends to the museums where I work, but it was quite embarrassing dragging my friends to MoMath.

  3. Thank you so much, Sam, for exposing MoMath! I am a former employee, and you probably read my review on Glassdoor as extremely scathing. In regard to the Title I program, and what was mentioned in the letter to the Board, I wanted to add another detail and personal anecdotes. As the person who managed the program for a few months (my tenure was only 7 months, as I was trying to get out of there from the start), I began to realize the misuse of donor money. Our programs were running with about 70% overhead – only about 30% of the grant money was going to the children (I calculated this by assuming normal group visit prices, so that may even be inaccurate). What was our overhead for these programs? Mostly me… How much was I making? $36k. I’m not saying I should have gotten more money from these grants, but rather, I am saying that the money was neither going to the students nor the staff.

    I would also like to echo the absolute bias that Museum executives hold towards Title I students. I was told that we didn’t have to treat these schools with as much tact or respect, because at the end of the day they weren’t paying for anything. This was after I had voiced concern over the fact that we were stringing schools along, and playing “will they won’t they” with the possibility of a trip.

    I would love for this letter to gain more exposure, and for the Museum to truly be exposed to the wider field of mathematicians and museum workers.

  4. I encourage anyone who is concerned about there issues to copy, share, repost our letter wherever you feel it would cast light on the problem. Google, Instagram, Facebook, etc are some recommendations. I was threatened for speaking out, and poured so much of my soul into attempted reform anyway, I need to move on and leave it to others (like Sam — thank you!) to pass the torch. This letter is the tip of the iceberg.

    I encourage skeptics about the issues to reach out to former employees about their experiences, as the problems were ubiquitously noticed by everyone from floor workers, to management, to the original creators of the museum who were pushed out by the current CEO Cindy Lawrence. Let them tell you their stories.

    We still haven’t heard from The Board.

  5. I am glad this is being made public now and grateful to those who helped push for this, as a former mistreated employee after I was forced out I would’ve just continued on being upset at how I and my other co-workers were treated yet feeling like there was nothing in my power to do. So I’m glad I was able to add my name to this letter, and like Joe said, feel free to ask me about my experiences (they didn’t want me there anymore so badly because I had the audacity to stand up for myself that they created a whole new dress code for floor employees that they then sent out to all employees after they tried discriminatorily only applying it to me (would be happy to tell you more about this) – this was one of the last straws after a long miserable experience of being mistreated, valued less than my male coworkers in multiple regards, and personally targeted once I started voicing my frustration with these problems). I hope this gains some traction and helps real change come. We all started out there thinking this would be such an awesome job and place to work, really engaging the public and kids from all walks of life and showing them how cool and fun math is, but in reality, every coworker I worked with felt disappointed and disheartened very shortly after starting, and no one stuck around long enough to do anything about it.

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