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Museum Redesigned: The Cooper Hewitt Experience

Tech & Innovation | April 6, 2015

There is an imposing brick mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side set back behind a tall fence and across the street from Central Park. The building is 116 years old, but the museum is one of the most gadget-filled I’ve been to.

I visited the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum on my own one afternoon during Spring Break. After standing in a long line of impatient patrons, I was handed my ticket and a large, white plastic “pen”. The woman explained that I could press the cross on the top of the pen into a corresponding cross on any sign in the museum to save an image of the object. Anything I saved would be available at my personal URL when I went home. The squishy plastic tip, where the ink would come out on a standard pen, could be used as a stylus on any of the tablet tables in the exhibit halls.

The Cooper Hewitt closed in 2011 for a major renovation, reopening in December of last year. The museum’s goal was to transform into a truly interactive space that would engage visitors and draw them back repeatedly. The renovation opened a whole new floor of exhibit halls and restored the building, originally built by Carnegie. The  beautiful wood paneled walls continue to give the museum a turn-of-the-century feel.

During its renovation, the Cooper Hewitt asked Local Projects and Diller Scofidio+Renfro to “come up with a visitor technology that emphasized play and spoke to the specificities of a design museum.” They developed the idea for the pen, then adapted a similar technology already being used to control inventory in health care to fit the museum’s needs. The museum engaged several different firms that specialize in design and production to create both the pens and the tables.

One of the things the Cooper Hewitt does best is break the touch barrier present in most museums. One room on the first floor features a series of product designs that have improved people’s lives. There is a wheelchair with thicker wheels that uses levers to move, allowing it go a lot faster and making it better suited for rough terrain. The display explains how this wheelchair is helpful for people living in developing countries, where there may be limited access to paved roads. What makes it stand out is a wheel you can turn (simulating the original design) and a lever that visitors can push to see how much it easier it is to move the improved wheelchair.

Not only are these kinds of interactive displays well maintained, a rarity for many science museums, but they enhance visitors’ understanding of the objects. It seems many museums just add bells and whistles so they can label themselves “interactive”. The Cooper Hewitt’s displays are more thoughtful, however, which makes them both fun and interesting.

Most of the second and third floors showcase more standard museum fare. There is an absorbing section on tiny models of staircases and other intricate architectural details. Mostly the rooms hold a collection of interesting, if random, furniture, clothes, utensils, prints, birdcages, etc. This makes it difficult to pull any larger themes from the collection, but perhaps this isn’t necessary in every museum. The Cooper Hewitt acts as a source of design inspiration; visitors come away with ideas to muse on rather than concrete messages. The emphasis on creativity makes the pens a perfect fit.

The museum’s website states the pen helps visitors “learn about design by designing themselves.” They can do this on the museum’s “tablet tables,” giant iPads that have a stream of images flowing across the screen. Up to six people can stand around and use their pens to draw 3D hats, chairs, buildings and other objects. It is basically a simplified version of Computer Animated Design (CAD), and it provides endless fun. The tables are also used in the Immersion Room, where visitors can design wallpaper while it is projected around them. Not only is this very entertaining, but it gives an idea of how designers might create a pattern or something more complex.

The pens also allow people to save images of the pieces they particularly liked, which will then be available at their URLs. I like that this expands the inspiration that can happen in a museum,  particularly a design one, to outside its walls.

Somehow the Cooper Hewitt has managed to take technology typically seen in children’s’ museums and transform it into something classy and attractive to museum-goers of all ages. I watched as an elderly couple helped each other design wallpaper. They held their pens tentatively, almost fearful of the unfamiliar technology, but they were just as excited to design wallpaper as everyone else.  Strangers admired the twisted metallic hats others had designed as they stood at the tables together, and there was a comfortable buzz throughout the museum. It’s a powerful thing when technology can not only spark interaction between humans and the objects on display, but can also turn a museum visit into a communal experience.

It’s certainly possible that the Cooper Hewitt is relying too much on its pens to make the museum interesting. Without them I don’t think there is much to hold the collection together. Nevertheless, it’s impressive that the careful addition of technology to a museum experience can make it so much more powerful. The Cooper Hewitt has managed to combine the intrigue of a new device with a traditional museum to reach its goal of being interactive.

I think this is the direction in which many museums will chose to go in the next few years. It’s not enough to simply put up some touch screens next to artifacts; these institutions need to be creative with how they employ technology, and use the Cooper Hewitt as their example to follow.

Photo from Cooper Hewitt Museum website.