Cooper Hewitt's Digital Transformation

New York City has been short a design museum these past three years—not the only one, but certainly an important one. That’s all about to change this coming December, when the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum reopens its doors after extensive renovation. Located inside the historic Carnegie Mansion along Museum Mile on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the museum, which claims to be the nation’s only museum dedicated entirely to historic and contemporary design, has been working to transform its image from stodgy and inaccessible to inviting and technologically hip. To that end, the museum’s digital department has completely transformed everything about the museum experience.

I spent the summer at the museum as a Peter A. Krueger fellow, immersed in the digital museum transformation, working closely with the Cooper Hewitt’s digital and curatorial departments as they prepare for reopening. The centerpiece of the museum’s strategy is what they are calling the “digital pen.” Shaped much like your common writing implement, these pens are handed to visitors the moment they walk into the door and purchase a ticket. Each visitor will then use the pen to “collect” objects they find interesting or want to learn more about. The operating principle is simple: see the object, look at the label and wave the pen in front of it, where a sensor registers pen data. This selection of objects will be accessible after the visitor leaves the museum by accessing a unique web URL printed on each ticket.

The pen can also be used to interact with the second part of the museum’s digital transformation: the digital table. Scattered throughout the museum, these 8-foot by 4-foot touchscreens are the digital hub of object information within the museum. Here, the user can use the digital pen to learn more about the objects they have collected, see related objects not on view and even draw on and manipulate images of their favorite objects. The immersion room will allow the visitor to go wild designing a wallpaper via the digital table and pen, which will then be projected on the wall to give visitors a taste of what it might look like in situ.

Much of what I worked on this summer was writing and editing object chats for each of the 170+ objects that will be on view in the museum’s reopening special exhibition entitled TOOLS: Extending Our Reach. This also included drawing specific relations between loan objects and some of the 217,000 objects in the Cooper Hewitt collection, a difficult task considering that the collections of Cooper Hewitt and those of some of the 12 loaning institutions, including the National Museum of Air and Space and the National Museum of the American Indian, cover wildly different subject matter. It was, in many ways, a monumental task and something that I think more museums with even larger collections will struggle with in coming years as collections are digitized and the museum experience becomes seamlessly integrated into an online experience.

Considering the sheer magnitude of the museum’s effort—which has also included a rapid capture digitization that will attempt to take a high-resolution image of every object in the collection, a brand new website built on the seamless Wordpress CMS (find it at cooperhewitt.org), an easily navigable collections website component, and a Chester Jenkins designed (and freely downloadable) typeface—the digital pen and table initiative is certainly impressive. But the bigger question: will it work? And will visitors care? From the beginning, it seems that the museum has tempered expectations partly because it acknowledges that this is one big experiment. Because, truly, who knows?

I have my ideas, however. I am worried that visitors will lose their tickets that unlock that precious unique URL, or, worse, break or steal one of the pens. Or that they simply won’t know how to use the pen or won’t care to. That’s the worst case scenario. But I think the digital pen and corresponding table speak to a larger initiative to make museums institutions that are accessible to a number of different kinds of people who learn and see differently. For the person who may not be so interested in the museum experience of object + vitrine + wall label, this may be the perfect option. They can look at cool things, look at objects that are similarly cool, read about them, draw on them and track their visit through the museum when they get home. Or, it could revolutionize note-taking and information capture and help guide the interested visitor to other things that may help in research or otherwise. For others, the pen may come across as a pesky nuisance. I suspect that all of these are possible. But what I will say is that the museum is trying. It is trying to reinvent the idea that the museum has to be a place of siloed information where only the most esoteric can truly unlock the secrets of the objects. And for this reason, I give Cooper Hewitt one massive round of applause. It’s trying something and who knows? It may just be the next great revolution in museum-going.

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