Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Cooper Hewitt renovation

Cooper Hewitt Museum’s new “Immersion Room” Photograph by Matt Flynn. Source: Cooper Hewitt/Smithsonian Design Museum.

Pat Wechsler, Inside a NYC museum’s radical $81 million reboot, Fortune, 16 December 2014

The Cooper Hewitt Museum’s radical reimagining took three years, careful cultivation of corporate donors and a big bet on digital.

Caroline Baumann, the director of New York City’s newly-refurbished and reimagined Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, says she never wants to hear, “Cooper what?” again. And after overseeing an $81 million transformation into a cutting-edge digital showcase that melds three centuries worth of technology and art, she may not have to.

The Cooper Hewitt, perhaps best known in decades past for the Victorian era opulence of the 113-year-old Andrew Carnegie mansion it calls home, is now basking in the global fascination with the marriages of form and function that catapulted companies like Apple to success. Long lines for museum exhibitions and education programs several years ago made a 60 percent expansion of the gallery space a necessity, Cooper Hewitt officials said.

The three-year renovation that followed ended up doing more than that: Cooper Hewitt has been widely praised by critics for pioneering participatory visitor experiences and immersion in a museum that integrates state-of-the-art robotics and 3D printing along side the innovative visions of earlier centuries.

“There’s a hunger for design,” explains Baumann, who has held various positions at the museum since 2001 and was at the Museum of Modern Art before that. “So our challenge was to rethink the museum experience to make it more relevant to design. There’s so much competition, nationally and globally. How do we become America’s design museum and hold that flag high in the air?”

The journey to that chilly December 12 morning when Baumann and Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough cut the ribbon with a 3D-printed pair of scissors, courtesy of corporate sponsor 3D Systems, involved years of careful recruitment for the museum’s board of trustees of supporting companies and foundations that shared Cooper Hewitt’s design mission.

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