Cooper Hewitt & the Design of a Design Museum

Image via Cooper Hewitt

After a three-year hiatus, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum reopened in December 2014; in early 2015, they introduced the Pen, a high-tech RFID device disguised as a basic design tool. The Pen is given to every visitor upon admission, and it invites visitors to learn about design by designing their own experiences within (and beyond) the museum.

While in the museum, you can draw your own designs, solve real world problems, and explore the entirely digitized collection on large touchscreen tables. Your experience data is (optionally) stored, so you can keep exploring and learning even after your visit. The Pen enables you to explore objects in the galleries using interactive tables, and “your” objects are later available online via the unique URL printed on your admission ticket. The Pen allows you to create your own experience, and it does so without disrupting the museum experience or requiring you to download a museum-specific mobile app.

Unlike most museums, which display objects and finished works, Cooper Hewitt focuses on how objects and works are created. So it makes perfect sense that the new museum experience is based around exploration and a hands-on attitude. Creating a seamless experience between digital and physical environments is not just a catchy way to engage visitors—it’s also reflective of real world design environments.

The museum’s interactive exhibitions are enhanced by the museum’s overall policy of openness. Before the grand reopening, the collection was digitized and the entire building was scanned in detail. The detailed model of the Carnegie mansion is available for download, the newly designed font is free for public use, and all of the descriptive data from the collection is available on GitHub—allowing you to understand the design behind the database, as well as the collection itself. Even your own data—the record of the objects you explored, and the path you took through the museum—is as open as you want it to be. After visiting the Cooper Hewitt and using the Pen, you can choose to leave your anonymized data in the museum’s system to help drive future design decisions.

By engaging visitors in an immersive experience and appealing to their sense of exploration and creativity, the Cooper Hewitt has created an interactive, open space where visitors can shape their own narratives. In short, it exemplifies what a design museum can be.