A Physical Renovation Spawns Inventive Ideas

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Back in 2008, the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum began a $91 million restoration. During the construction, the curators and directors began to think about what it means to be a museum in the age of the Internet. So when they re-opened the museum—which was once Andrew Carnegie’s 91st Street mansion—in December 2014, visitors encountered something entirely new.

Active participation at museums has continued to evolve in recent years. At the new Cooper Hewitt (seems they’ve dropped the hyphen), there is a space on the second floor that uses digital projections to highlight the museum’s impressive collection of wallcoverings. Using a stylus pen that you are given once you purchase your admission ticket, you can select patterns on a computer screen and project them onto large floor-to-ceiling walls. There are a few ways to experience this particular installation: you can stand back and watch the archival designs dance across the walls or sketch out your own creations and witness them come to life. I observed a woman quickly draw out lenticular lines on the computer in the center of the room. Right away, her movements translated into streaky wisp-like patterns on the walls—sometimes with colors and shapes so psychedelic I became entranced. The Immersion Room they call it; all should engage.

But in a way, even an experience of that kind lasts only for a few moments. Often, I found myself rushing through the rooms, distracted by others’ participation with the many computers. In my case, I assessed my trip by ticking off what I did against what the website suggested was new and exciting, or even against the digital Collection Browser, a series of computers installed on seven tables throughout the museum, which give you access to what you can see while you are there. While the Collection Browser can be informative, it’s not really entertaining. Much better to let your eyes lead you to other corners of the museum.

The pen, I found, was useful for its ability to vividly interact with many of the installations—to watch your ideas instantly come to life on a larger screen. If on your visit, you see something that you particularly like, you can take the eraser side of your stylus, hold it for a moment to a “+” icon, and wait for it to vibrate. Once you’ve done this, you’ve now saved that object, meaning that you can access it from home. The technology is noteworthy, though even the press release seems to know that the “object saved” function is not vital to the museum-going process. “Cooper Hewitt remain[s] true to the vision of its founders, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt,” it reads, “who intended it as ‘a practical working laboratory,’ where students and designers could be inspired by actual objects.” Shouldn’t the thrill, then, come from seeing—or re-seeing—those objects in person? 

Another reason to go visit Copper Hewitt, I suppose, is what you will discover architecturally. Judging by their website, there appears to be two main interest groups—the modern design aficionados and the history buffs. The history buffs tend to be drawn to the original 1902 Babb, Cook and Willard mansion details, especially the Gilded Age oak. Much of it has been restored and the museum claims to have included 60 percent more gallery space, which is used for public exhibitions. As we know from the Whitney’s clever move downtown, more space means more room to show permanent collections. And that’s always a boon for visitors.