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.
Here’s a futuristic lamp I designed:
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!)
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.