Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Rethinking the design museum

The Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s recently reopened design museum.

Robinson Meyer, The Museum of the Future Is Here, The Atlantic, 20 January 2015

Some things belong in a museum. But at the Smithsonian’s recently reopened museum of design, a team has been rethinking what a thing is in the first place.

The museum’s magical pen was made by GE and other firms. (Cooper Hewitt)

The museum’s magical pen was made by GE and other firms. (Cooper Hewitt)

Very soon, every visitor to the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s recently reopened design museum, will receive a giant pen. This pen is not really a pen. On the table, it looks like a gray plastic crayon the size of a turkey baster. In the hand, it feels pleasing, chunky, hefty like a toddler’s rubber ball. And at the museum, it does something magical.

Next to every object on-display at the Cooper Hewitt is a small pattern that looks like the origin point of the coordinate plane. When the pen touches it, the digital record of that object is added to the visitor’s personal museum collection. When they leave, they will have to return the pen, but information about and high-resolution photos of the object will be waiting for them.

To people who photograph placards when they visit museums—a group to which I belong—the pen is a godsend. It anticipates a need and executes it; it is a straightforward, useful object. But it’s something more. The pen does something that countless companies, organizations, archives, and libraries are trying to do: It bridges the digital and the physical.

Last month, the Cooper Hewitt welcomed visitors again after a three-year-long closed-door renovation. Its leaders were rethinking what a design museum should be. And a five-member team inside it—Cooper Hewitt Labs—was thinking about questions which the pen addresses, questions about how to bind the vast possibilities of the digital with the finite fact of the physical.

It is a good time for the museum to reopen, for design has rarely been so central to the American popular conversation. But its leaders have succeeded in something that should interest more than the chambray-wearing set. The Cooper Hewitt has transformed into an organization not unlike Wikipedia, Pinterest, or, for that matter, The Atlantic: Somewhere between a media and a tech firm, it is a Thing That Puts Stuff on the Internet.

Or, more precisely, A Thing That Puts Things on the Internet.

But to get to that point, the museum has made sweeping decisions about who it wants to serve, how it should serve them, and what that “service” should look like. The leaders of the Cooper Hewitt—a national steward of well-designed things—have ultimately had to shift their understanding of what a thing is in the first place.

Excepting the ones who are alive now, every human being who ever lived has died. Their belongings—the objects that filled their life and helped give it meaning—all met a similar fate. Some were destroyed. Some found new owners. And a tiny, tiny fraction of a fraction were saved. They would be preserved—they belonged in a museum.

If you wanted to see those objects, you had to go to that museum. In glass cases and on wooden shelves, you could survey the stuff that people made or used or prized. Saving this old stuff was so important that cities and states established institutions to do it, libraries and archives and museums that made sense of the receding past. Their job—to steward the products of the past into the unfolding present—was tough, but possible. As long as the government lasted, so would the objects.

“All jokes about politics aside, the United States isn’t going anywhere, and the Smithsonian is the national museum,” Aaron Straup Cope tells me. “By definition, it not only traffics in the past, it has to traffic in the near future. It has to keep an eye on it, it has to have some sense.”

Cope is the lead engineer at Cooper Hewitt Labs. For years now, I’d come across intriguing updates from him and his colleagues. Led by Seb Chan—a prominent Australian thinker on museums, who’s also a DJ and music journalist—Cooper Hewitt Labs seemed to be spinning a textile from that near future and releasing it strand by strand. A blog post here, a demo there: The ideas and software they put out represented such a complete vision for what a museum could be that I wasn’t able to grasp it all at once. There was a sophisticated idealism in their output—an idealism about what the Internet could be, especially for public institutions hooked up to it—that felt rare, precious, and vital.

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