February 19, 2013  |  Learning and Engagement
“Plundering Pirates” Invade the Galleries!

You may ask yourself: “What did these pirates intend to plunder from MoMA and what does it have to do with the Museum’s Education Department?”  Though it may sound like  a tagline for an elaborate heist film featuring pirates looting galleries, “Plundering Pirates at MoMA” was the title for the Museum’s School Visits partnership project with Quest to Learn School’s 7th grade students.  This past December, we collaborated with Q2L for a second time (check out our first project HERE), working with two of their math teachers, Kate Selkirk and Kristof Mueller.  The goal of the programs was to have 3 classes of 7th grade students use algebraic and geometrical reasoning to navigate a designated path through the Museum’s galleries and engage with its collection.


We created an activity based on the structure of a treasure map, in which students needed to go into the Museum’s galleries to solve a series of six mathematical problems and puzzles, related to six specific works of art, that would eventually lead them to a final problem in one of the Cullman Education and Research Building’s classrooms.  We selected artwork in which mathematics could provide “entry” into looking at the works– that in solving equations, students would need to interact with the works of art using keen observation and critical thinking skills.

The Museum’s fourth floor galleries proved to be a “treasure trove” of works relevant to our subject.  For example, one of the selected works, Mario Merz’s  Untitled (A Real Sum Is a Sum of People), features the Fibonacci series/sequence.

Front page of the activity worksheet for Mario Merz’s “Untitled (A Real Sum Is a Sum of People)”.

Front page of the activity worksheet for Mario Merz’s “Untitled (A Real Sum Is a Sum of People)”.

Other works selected were:

For the final portion of the project, we wanted to give something to the students that came from the Museum.  We enlisted the help of Chef Lynn Bound and Pastry Chef Sandra Mannino (from MoMA’s Cafe 2) to create edible gold-dusted brownie bars to take the stead of pirates’ booty.


The students entered the Cullman Building and were introduced to their “mission” in one of our classrooms.  The class was broken up into five groups consisting of six students and one chaperone.  Each group was supplied with worksheets and a bag containing a map of the fourth floor galleries, pencils, measuring tape, and calculators to aid them on their plundering .

Step 1: Solve the equation to find the corresponding gallery number.

Step 1: Solve the equation to find the corresponding gallery number.

Their worksheets included reproductions of the artworks, orders of operations and equations to solve related to the works, and the related gallery numbers.   At the top of each worksheet was a problem- the solution was the corresponding gallery number.

The students were given 90 minutes to complete their worksheets, and each chaperone was provided with answer keys.  The activities on the worksheets prompted students to interact with the artwork in various ways such as:

  • Draw three-dimensional works from different angles and viewpoints.
  • Use (provided) pattern blocks to recreate Frank Stella’s design for Empress of India.
  • Convert fractions to decimals using measurements from James Rosenquist’s Doorstop.
  • Describe how it feels to walk around/under Richard Serra’s Delineator.
Front page of the worksheet for Richard Serra’s “Delineator”.

Front page of the worksheet for Richard Serra’s “Delineator”.


After completing their worksheets in the galleries, one final equation awaited the students back in the Education Building.  Each group was given a number that corresponded with a specific box.  Upon finding their boxes, the students brought them to the classroom and hurriedly opened them to discover their “treasure”, brownies from Café 2.

It was exciting to see how gratifying it was for the students, to solve puzzles.  More importantly, the students were able to incorporate what they have been learning in school and make connections between math and visual arts all while having fun.

In each box were six brownies, one of them were dusted with edible gold paint.

In each box were six brownies, one of them were dusted with edible gold paint.

Based on this and other collaborations with Quest to Learn School it is apparent that both the students and their teachers are able to use the Museum and its collection as extensions of their classroom curricula.  The Plundering Pirates went beyond the silver lining of our partnership and headed straight for MoMA’s golden brownies.

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