Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’s Interactive Experience

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Although most people associate Smithsonian museums with Washington, DC, New York City is host to two very special Smithsonian museums: the National Museum of the American Indian, which we’ve previously explored here and here, and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Located in what was once the mansion of successful businessman Andrew Carnegie, Cooper Hewitt’s surroundings and ever-changing exhibitions are fascinating and inspiring.

What makes Cooper Hewitt particularly fun to visit is its interactive features. When visitors step up to the ticket counter, they are given an pen that holds all kinds of possibilities. As you tour the museum, you can “collect” information about individual exhibits that interest you. Each exhibit has a special symbol on the sign describing the exhibit and, by pressing your pen to that symbol, it saves that information in a digital file. You are given a unique identifier for your pen and visit that allows you to later go onto the museum’s website and “retrieve” your visit. All saved descriptions are on your own private page, along with photos of the items you were interested in. (Your personal website even allows you to type in notes about what you thought about each exhibit!) At the end of the visit, you return the pen to be reprogrammed for the next guest.

As you go through the museum, there are other places to use your interactive pen. For example, at some stations, guests can design their own furniture or decor, and then save that design to the same private page with the pen.

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Here’s a futuristic lamp I designed:

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In the Immersion Room, guests can use the pen to choose wallpaper patterns from an electronic library or design their own patterns, which are then projected on the room’s walls. (I didn’t design a pattern myself, but here are photos showing what another visitor designed.)

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There are a variety of exhibitions focusing on both historical and modern design, broadly defined. One of my favorite exhibitions is part of an ongoing exhibition series titled Selects. The current exhibition, titled Thom Browne Selects, consists of a room wallpapered in holographic foil, nickel-plated shoes, 50 mirrors chosen by the fashion designer from the museum’s collection, along with a number of other shiny objects. The room makes a real visual impact, and the composition makes it fun to photograph. Thom Browne Selects is the 13th exhibition in the Selects series, and I am interested in seeing what follows it when the exhibition ends on October 23, 2016.

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Here are some of the things that really caught my attention in the other exhibitions during my last visit. They are an eclectic mix – interesting, beautiful, though-provoking, unique. I’ve identified the designer in the caption for each photograph. Many of the museum’s exhibitions change regularly – some of these pieces may not be on display much longer, but they will be replaced with other equally intriguing objects.

Snail Brooch designed by Gebrüder Hemmerle and Hemmerle, 2014
Snail Brooch designed by Gebrüder Hemmerle and Hemmerle, 2014
Photograph, Hairstyle 2, 2011, designed by Guido Palau and photographed by Fabien Baron
Photograph, Hairstyle 2, 2011, designed by Guido Palau and photographed by Fabien Baron
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Pieces from Atmospheric Reentry Collection, 2013-2014, designed by Maiko Takeda
Wallpaper, 2014, designed by Studio Job, Dutch, founded 1998, Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel and manufactured by NLXL
Wallpaper, 2014, designed by Studio Job, Dutch, founded 1998, Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel and manufactured by NLXL
Chanin Building Pair Of Gates, designed by René Paul Chambellan
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Clock Prototype, A Million Times, 288 H, 2013, designed by Humans since 1982, Per Emanuelsson, and Bastian Bischoff
Bubbles Chaise Lounge, ca. 1988, designed by Frank O. Gehry and manufactured by New City Editions
Bubbles Chaise Lounge, ca. 1988, designed by Frank O. Gehry and manufactured by New City Editions
Horseman Bench, from Kassena Town series, 2015, designed by Dokter and Misses, Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin
Horseman Bench, from Kassena Town series, 2015, designed by Dokter and Misses, Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin

This exhibit designed by Jenny E. Sabin, the Polythread Knitted Textile Pavilion, was beautiful – almost magical to walk under, with its soft tones and delicate textures.

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I particularly loved these imaginative beaded creatures that are part of the Azeaks series. As the museum’s description of these sculptures explains:

“The beads are assembled by women from the Khayelitsha settlement outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Known as The Haas Sisters, they collaborate with The Haas Brothers on the realization of these remarkable pieces.”

Sculpture, Fartin Odeur, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Fartin Odeur, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Evelyn, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Evelyn, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Nangamso, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Nangamso, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Bill Nyeland, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculptures, Bill Nyeland (yellow and orange) and Nonzaliseko #1 (pink), from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculptures, Gomer Pyeland (left) and Theodora (right), from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculptures, Gomer Pyeland (left) and Theodora (right), from the Afreaks series, 2015

Of course, the museum’s past history as Andrew Carnegie’s mansion makes the building itself very interesting. The mansion, built between 1899 and 1902, is on the National Register of Historic Places, both because of its history and its architectural significance. (The mansion’s steel frame construction was the first of its kind for an American residential building, and it also boasted one of the first Otis elevators and earliest central heating systems in a private home.)  If you pay close attention, you will see many fine details illustrating the building’s past use. (Lighting creates some challenging for photographing those details, as you can see!)

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Ceiling and wood paneling in the Entrance Hall
Plasterwork and stained glass transom windows in first floor room
Plasterwork and stained glass transom windows in first floor room
Interactive design lab in room with wall and ceiling details
Interactive design lab in room with wall and ceiling details
Upstairs landing, main staircase
Upstairs landing, main staircase

Want to visit Cooper Hewitt yourself? The museum is located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 91st Street. If traveling by subway, take the 4, 5, or 6 train to the 86th Street Station. You can also take the 6 train to the 96th Street Station. When you come up from the subway, you will want to walk west three blocks from Lexington Avenue to Fifth Avenue, and then along Fifth Avenue to the museum. You can also reach Cooper Hewitt by MTA bus. If traveling north (uptown), take the M1, M2, M3, or M4 along Madison Avenue to the 91st Street stop. You will walk west one block to get to the museum. If traveling south (downtown), take the M1, M2, M3, or M4 along Fifth Avenue to either the 90th Street or 92 Street stop.

Note: If you are used to the free entrance policy for most Smithsonian museums, it is worth noting that Cooper Hewitt charges an entry fee. Visitors save $2.00 per ticket by purchasing tickets in advance online.

20 thoughts on “Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’s Interactive Experience

  1. This is one of the most exciting posts I’ve ever read. I badly want one of those pens, and a chance to do a bit of design. Every museum should have this interactivity. So many things to delight: standouts for me are the snail, the clocks, the Afreaks, so beautifully photographed, and the pavilion. I dunno about the Gehry chaise longue. What a museum – and a pretty good museum “guide” too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This really is one of my favorite museums. There is such a variety of things to see, and the fact that they rotate exhibits pretty often means you can go back again and again. And the best part is the pen. It is so much fun to play around with the design tables. At first I thought it was something only children would be doing, but the adults were just as involved as the kids!

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    1. The pen really was very useful! I normally take two photos of exhibits I’m interested in, one of the actual exhibit and one of the card next to it. It’s so frustrating if I get home and realize I can’t read the card or forgot to take a photo of it, and it’s impossible to remember everything otherwise!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, this is fascinating for so many reasons. Apart from the fabulous exhibits, the interactive pen is a brilliant idea that I have never come across before. And I would love to walk in Carnegie’s footsteps. We have several Carnegie libraries in Glasgow so have reason to be grateful to him.

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    1. I love to see Carnegie Libraries! As a businessman, Andrew Carnegie’s actions were pretty ruthless but in retirement his philanthropy was so important. It’s really interesting to think of the museum as being someone’s private home. The architectural details are really beautiful.

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    1. It’s definitely worth a visit! Not one of the ones with free membership if you have a NYC ID, unfortunately, but it really is worth the admission price. And it is also a participant in the Smithsonian Free Museum Day each year as well.

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  3. Reblogged this on John Knifton and commented:
    I did not write this blog post. It was written by Susan and is one of the most interesting blogs I follow. If you are too busy for all of it, just read the first section about interactive pens. It is really, really imaginative!!

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  4. I wish I could use that pen every time I visited a new location. I always miss something along the way during my travels. I love the idea of tagging things with a pen. How wonderful to be able to revisit everything once you get home. What a really interesting museum.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know – it would be great if we could have one of those pens, and use it at all museums. I usually am taking photos of all of the descriptions of exhibits I like, and then try to piece it all back together in my head later. It made the museum so much more interactive too.

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