You are here

What Will Inspire You? The Grand Reopening of Cooper Hewitt

Published on
December 16

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, is firmly rooted in both the past and the future of design. Located in the historic Carnegie Mansion, where Andrew Carnegie lived for the last sixteen years of his life, the museum places high value in the art, architecture and designs of the past. Yet Cooper Hewitt also constantly looks for the newest developments in design, in an incredible diversity of contemporary fields. The museum has been closed for the past three years, undergoing a massive renovation in an attempt to create a 21st century museum while still holding true to its 19th century tradition. As of December 12th, the museum is now reopened, and I believe that its new renovation is one of the most impressive reimaginings of what a museum can be that I have ever experienced.

Upon first pulling open the heavy doors and entering the main level of the museum, I was immediately greeted by the appearance of the historic mansion: beautiful dark woods, impressively detailed plaster ceilings, a magnificent red-carpeted staircase. While I had never been to the museum before the renovation for comparison, the museum after the renovation still preserves the original design of the historic mansion. Yet though the facilities still appear historic, a small exhibit on the ground floor reveals the incredible modern-day advancements made to it. For example, a movable wall was built on the first floor, concealing the freight elevator when the museum is open but allowing far easier art circulation when exhibits change. Many of the rooms of the museum are referred to by their original use – the parlor room, or the Carnegie’s bedrooms, for example. These rooms tend to contain exhibits displaying historical works, including an impressive collection of staircase models and works from the collection of the Hewitt sisters. Other exhibits, however, focus on the very latest developments in design – I saw a commercial for the Nest thermostat just a few weeks ago, and there is already a section of design prototypes about it in the museum, along with some of the latest developments in prosthetics and new ways of making technology more accessible.

These two facets of design, historical and contemporary, are integrated throughout the museum in powerful ways. The third floor of the museum, for example, is entirely taken up by an exhibit on tools, a very broad topic. I began by walking past a collection of historic toolboxes from a variety of professions. These led to the center of the exhibit, an incredible, immersive sculpture made out of dozens and dozens of old fashioned tools: hammers, saws, rakes, and more. None of the tools in this sculpture are unusual in any way – in fact, we may even take them for granted. Yet together, they form a powerful supernova of development and technology. Walking through this sculpture led me towards some of the more cutting edge developments, including a SketchBot that will draw your picture in sand, and a device called inFORM that allows you to interact physically with objects that could be thousands of miles away. These two exhibits in particular drew large crowds, but what makes them so powerful is not just their novelty but their context. These inventions are developments of the more humble hammers and toolboxes, on display nearby. Our designs do not exist alone – we constantly seek the past as inspiration for the future.

In keeping with this idea of the past inspiring the future, there are many large touch screens throughout the museum where visitors have the opportunity to learn more about historical works and gain inspiration for their own. You can search through a variety of different pieces from the museum’s collections, each labeled with tags to allow you to find related pieces. Then, you can become a designer and create a virtual version of an object inspired by what you saw on screen, in the museum, or even just in your own imagination. As a designer you have control over what object you choose to make, what materials you use, and what form your object ultimately takes. While these touch screens can be found throughout the museum, near both historical and contemporary exhibits, one room on the second floor contains a particularly special version. This room is called the Immersion Room, and it alone is worth the trip to the museum. This exhibit perfectly marries Cooper Hewitt’s rich history with its pursuit into the future in a way that enriches and enlivens both. Guests can search through digital images of Cooper Hewitt’s renowned collection of wallcoverings, and with the touch of a finger can make them appear on the wall, just as they were intended to be viewed. Then, guests can create their own wallpaper, drawing on the touch screen and seeing their creation appear on the wall in real time. Again, the amount of control you have over your design is incredible, and I was constantly discovering new ways to manipulate my design. This exhibit drew a large crowd as well, and inspired a great deal of conversation between the museum visitors. “No designs look bad on this,” one guest commented. He never thought of himself as a designer, yet this exhibit allowed him to try something he had never thought of pursuing, and immediately see the results.

I was very fortunate to experience the Cooper Hewitt on one of its first days. Even on a Tuesday afternoon, the museum was already quite crowded, and I anticipate this museum becoming even more popular in the coming months. 2015 will bring with it yet another new innovation for the museum: a special “Pen” for each guest that will allow museum visitors to select objects that interest them and save them in their own personal virtual collection to reference and explore in more depth after their visit. It is easy to stroll through a museum, glance at the objects on display, and leave without retaining any information or having any different experience of the world. But Cooper Hewitt’s new renovation demands engagement. It insists on visitor interaction, and expects visitors to respond to what they see. Cooper Hewitt allows you to design your own unique museum experience, and empowers you to design your world as well.