Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
In terms of the king of museum experiences, I’d kind of been saving the best for last. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is one of New York City’s three Smithsonian and was initially charged with giving a space to the “Arts of Decoration”. It has been kicking around since 1896 but was handed over to the Smithsonian in 1967. Before that it had been established and run by the three granddaughters of wealthy industrialist Peter Cooper – I feel like I’ve typed the phrase “wealthy industrialist” a million times on this trip.
Housed in the Andrew Carnegie mansion on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile (not far from the Guggenheim) these days it is home to 198,255 objects and has a remit that covers all areas of design, from the 2 dimensional to furniture, jewellery, models and even a Rolls Royce that once belonged to the Beatles. The mansion itself is a really serene getaway from the honking traffic of the Upper East Side. In terms of Cooper Hewitt’s place amongst other Smithsonians, it’s like the slightly cooler older sister. You can tell on approach, the old iron gate has the Cooper Hewitt’s cleanly designed logo boldly attached to it – even their treatment of the slightly dated Smithsonian logo is simplified to a more pleasing silhouette. Inside the gate and past the now ubiquitous security guard a huge courtyard reveals itself around a central green plus a terrace draped in wisteria. I do a sheepish lap around the building, unable to find the front door. This may actually be the only thing Cooper Hewitt struggles with. I head through the cafe, through the very well stocked gift shop and into the entry foyer. It’s here that I see the front door (of course, covered in scaffolding) but confusingly placed down a side street on the north side of the building, not incredibly obvious given the likely approach by tourists from the south. Okay, I’m splitting hairs slightly but I had to find something I could pick apart, right?
The Cooper Hewitt – interior (click to explore)
The whole visitor experience for the Cooper Hewitt is excellently thought out. Once you arrive at the front desk the noticeably non-museum-ie and more design-ie front of house people greet you and hand over The Pen. *Queue triumphal music* Developed by a team under the auspices of ACMI’s Seb Chan, The Pen facilitates one of the most awesome museum going experiences I’ve ever had. Probably five or six times bugger than a usual pen, the Cooper Hewitt’s device is a custom digital object that allows you to interact with with and save your experiences of the collection during your visit. As the front of house staff inform you, The Pen is a stylus that allows you to interact with various exhibits but also allows you to save particular objects that you are fond with. By inverting The Pen and tapping its stub to specially deigned icons on exhibits’ didactic panels, an NFC tag embedded in the panel register with the device. This functions a bit like a real world shopping cart where you collect your favourite objects.
The Pen in action.
At various points in the museum you are confronted with a large touch table. Using the stylus end of The Pen you can scribble on the table. The table then calculates a vector from your scribble and presents an object from the collection that approximates it. Form there you can save the object to your account or move on to design your own. Using nodes and vectors you may then design your own three dimensional object which, again you may save. Also using the touch table you can take a look at all the objects you have already saved to your account.
All of this adds up to a great visitor experience where you are not constantly gazing down at a screen and are rather wielding a screenless object that is at once unobtrusive but by the same token your magic key to access the collection.
Post experience, you enter a unique ID printed on your tickets create an account and see your collection of objects of interest, gathered during your visit. On my visit, objects from the new exhibition “The Jazz Age” featured heavily with its physically bam!-chk!-bam!-looking objects. I also had several from sections from the collection by Ellen DeGeneres. Go figure.
This was a total treat and to date is winning by far for an overall brilliantly conceived visitor experience.
Admission: 18 clams. Bargain.
Digital engagement: See above.