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Technology and the museum experience

Information-storing pens enhance the museum-going experience. Source: Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

Adriana Krasniansky ‘Three Tech Innovations at the Upgraded Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’, psfk 29 December 2014

Digital pens, screen tables, and ‘immersion rooms’ bring technological components of design into the museum experience.

The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum opened to the public earlier this month, following a 3-year, $81 million renovation; in addition to a new typeface and graphic identity, the museum has adopted new exhibit technologies to enhance the museum-going experience.

These tech innovations—which include information-storing pens, interactive screen tables, and digital wallpaper rooms—are part of a larger strategy to differentiate the design museum from its traditional “art” counterparts. “Design’s about doing; art’s about looking,” says Sebastian Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging Media at the museum, in an interview with Fast Company, “That’s important in this city [full of art museums], to actually state a claim about what a design museum is and can be.”

Near-Field Communication Digital Pen

While most museums supplement visitor walk-throughs with an audio tour or museum app, the Cooper Hewitt guides visitors using a true design tool: the pen. With help from teams at Local Projects, Diller and Scofidio + Renfro, Cooper Hewitt designed a pen that, when touched to an exhibit item, uses near-field communication technology to retrieve additional information about the object’s designers, design process, and materials.

The digital pen also doubles as a stylus. Visitors can sketch designs on the galleries’ interactive screen tables (see below) and manipulate their doodles into 3D renderings. Designs are saved onto a unique webpage associated with the pen, which visitors can access from a personalized URL printed on the back of their ticket.

Interactive Tabletop Screen

While Cooper Hewitt currently has 726 items on display, its online collection includes almost 190,000 objects. In order to give visitors access to the online collection, the museum has installed several 7-foot long screens that act as tables, where visitors can access objects not on display, search the collection, and draw with their interactive pens. The screens’ advanced recognition software matches visitors’ doodles with similarly-shaped objects in the collection. For example, drawing a squiggle conjures a similarly-curved vase from Cooper Hewitt’s archives.

“Immersion Room” Wall Projectors

Fun fact: The Cooper Hewitt holds the largest and most celebrated collection of wallpaper in the nation. However, much of this collection includes fragile or small samples, which are difficult to imagine as full wall coverings. As a creative display solution, Copper Hewitt has installed an “Immersion Room,” where visitors can browse through digital wallpaper swatches from the collection and project their favorites onto the room’s four walls. Ambitious visitors can also sketch and project their own wallpaper designs, using their interactive pen.

Though the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum opened to the public on 12 December 2014, these new technologies (including the digital pen) are rolling out through January 2015.

In her address at the museum’s official opening ceremony, Director Caroline Baumann referenced the institution’s commitment to celebrating tech as a vital component of the design process, and therefore the museum experience.

“Design is fun,” she said. “You’re going to play.”