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Open House

Oct. 29, 2015

Cooper Hewitt reinvents itself and the museum experience with an extensive renovation

Museums are in the business of preserving relics of bygone eras and giving the public access to view these snapshots of history often encased behind panes of glass or cordoned off by velvet ropes. But in today’s digital age, such static experiences are bound for extinction.

In spite of record visitation in 2002-2003, the leadership of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum recognized a sea change occurring and began a master planning process that involved much more than a makeover. “We also were realizing that the museum needed a total re-haul, a total renovation to truly become a 21st-Century museum,” explained Caroline Baumann, director of Cooper Hewitt.

Given its location in the landmark Carnegie Mansion along Museum Mile on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, however, preserving the historic integrity of the structure was as crucial to the programming as was its goal of modernizing it. The spirit and

character of the landmark building were preserved, with key elements restored to their original grandeur, while much needed system upgrades were made, allowing for more flexibility to reduce exhibition installation time, better accommodate the movement of objects, and above all, enhance public access on every level.

“We were constantly paying attention to that so that you wouldn’t enter Cooper Hewitt and say, ‘Oh my God. Where’s the old Cooper Hewitt?’ So there’s this wonderful marriage of the historic and the contemporary,” noted Baumann. Visitors are greeted by large, digital information screens about the museum’s exhibitions and special education programs, as well as a sleek reception desk that initially drew gasps from friends of the museum. “But for me it’s very much the message of ‘Welcome to the new Cooper Hewitt,’” Baumann said.

The three-year renovation, which began in 2011, is an astonishing work of design in itself and offers 60 percent more exhibition space to showcase one of the most diverse and comprehensive collections of design works in existence, which includes more than 210,000 objects that span 30 centuries. A team of 13 leading design firms were recruited by Cooper Hewitt to realize this project and create an interactive experience for visitors that has earned it the title, “The Museum of the Future,” by The Atlantic.

Case in point: the new Immersion Room on the second floor features more than 200 examples of Cooper Hewitt’s extraordinary collection of wallcoverings and allows visitors to select their favorites or draw their own designs, and then project full-scale versions onto the gallery walls. A hands-on Process Lab allows visitors to immerse themselves in design practice through physical and digital activities to emphasize how design is a way of thinking, planning, and problem-solving, and provides a foundation for the rest of the design concepts on view in the museum.

Beyond offering interactive experiences in a beautifully designed space, Cooper Hewitt has succeeded in reinventing the museum experience altogether by essentially giving away not only its entire collection, but the building itself—virtually, of course. “Basically, our whole new message is, ‘Our collection—the national collection of design—is your collection,’” said Baumann. To that end, every visitor to Cooper Hewitt is given an oversized pen that allows them to “gather” objects as they walk through the museum. Information about each item a visitor interacts with is downloaded by the pen to create a personally curated collection of artifacts in digital format that are viewable after their visit.

“It’s all about experience, it’s all about playing designer, which is really our tagline,” Baumann explained. “We want people to be inspired and empowered by design, and that’s what we’re seeing happen.”

Further, Cooper Hewitt has made available to anyone the code to the Carnegie Manson which allows users to fabricate a model of the museum using a 3D printer. The museum has also made its custom Cooper Hewitt typeface available for public download as well.

“There are really three words that I use a lot when I describe the new experience at Cooper Hewitt, and they are: accessibility, interactivity, and open resource,” said Baumann. “By giving our collection away, we’re saying ‘Build your own design collection.’ That’s a pretty powerful gesture for a museum.”

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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