Smithsonian Design Museum reopens with array of high-tech displays

Cooper Hewitt puts can-do spirit into the house Carnegie built


The industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s Gilded Age mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue is now home to one of the highest-tech museums in the US. After a $91m, three-year renovation, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is due to reopen on 12 December. It has 60% more exhibition space than before to present works from its 210,000-strong collection, as well as loans from across the Smithsonian, backed up by an arsenal of interactive features.

Every inch of the historic building has been restored, from its wrought-iron fence to the original teak floors. Entering the mansion’s Great Hall, visitors will be greeted by what is billed as the largest multi-user, ultra-high-definition touchscreen, which allows users to browse images of the museum’s collection. Upstairs, the Immersion Room invites visitors to select and project one of 500 digital images of wallpaper patterns onto the walls at full scale.

“My days have been bifurcated between an ambitious renovation of a 19th-century building and a complete rethinking of who we want to be as the only historic and contemporary design museum in the US,” says Caroline Baumann, the director of the Cooper Hewitt. Central to her vision is the most highly anticipated gadget of all: “the pen”. Sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies and adapted from an inventory control device used in healthcare, the pen—offered alongside an admission ticket—allows visitors to scan wall labels, build a virtual collection and create their own designs on interactive tables in the galleries. “The pen symbolises our shift from a museum of making to a museum of doing,” Baumann says. Visitors must return the pen when they leave, but they can access their selections online and the system will remember them on their next visit.

The first long-term survey of the museum’s collection, “Making Design”, also juxtaposes the old and the new. The eclectic presentation of 360 objects is intended to introduce the five key elements of design: form, colour, line, pattern and texture. “It’s not chronological—the idea is to throw people into the continuum of design and educate them about the process,” Baumann says. An undulating Alvar Aalto glass vase is paired with Tinker Hatfield’s contoured sole for the Nike Air Jordan sneaker to demonstrate a common approach to form, while a red iPod Nano is coupled with a red Vermelha chair by the Campana brothers to illustrate the importance of colour. Exhibits in the inaugural “Tools” exhibition range from the Stone Age to the Space Age. There is a 1.85-million-year-old chopper made of volcanic rock and extra-vehicular activity (EVA) instruments developed by Nasa for astronauts to fix the Space Shuttle.

The most striking example of design ingenuity, however, may be the renovation itself, which has had to abide by the strict landmark restrictions on the property. There is no new wing but the Cooper Hewitt has managed to increase the amount of space dedicated to its permanent collection fivefold and made the entire mansion accessible to the public for the first time.

To achieve this the architects—the firms Gluckman Mayner, Beyer Blinder Belle and Diller Scofidio + Renfro—moved the museum’s offices and research library, previously on the third floor, into the adjacent Miller-Fox townhouses, which had been used for storage. In the offices’ place, they built the Cooper Hewitt’s first open-plan galleries. The 6,000-sq-foot space enables curators to show monumental objects for the first time. The design museum, which was founded by the granddaughters of the industrialist Peter Cooper in 1897, moved to the Carnegie Mansion in 1976.

The Cooper Hewitt has raised 97% of its $91m goal, which includes a $10m endowment campaign, from federal, city and private sources. Costs associated with the project are expected to increase the museum’s annual budget from $16m to $18m. The Smithsonian Institution, which acquired the museum in 1967, finances 30% of its operations. But Baumann must earn the rest through fundraising and admission fees, which the museum has raised from $15 to $18.

In 2007, a report commissioned by the Smithsonian questioned the long-term viability of the Cooper Hewitt, because of “the modest size of audience, limited programmes and scope of [the] collection”. The institution now anticipates annual attendance could reach as many as 500,000—more than double its average before the renovation.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Cooper Hewitt puts can-do spirit into the house Carnegie built'