After three years of hiding behind construction fencing and signs, the Cooper Hewitt has emerged a renewed, revitalized institution. It’s been open now for less than two months (opening day was December 12, 2014) but the CH has been the talk of the town and the art world is aflutter.
With one great review after another, the museum is riding high after its multimillion dollar installation redesign. The New York Times focused on the building itself, “a house that has altered its function and, now more than ever with the renovation, altered its design, but can’t help but retain memories.” And the Wall Street Journal comments, “Fully embracing the complexities of its multifaceted identity and the realities of design today, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is more engrossing than ever as it plunges ahead in the 21st century.” With such high praise, how could you not stop by the museum?
The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum is housed in a 1902 Carnegie mansion on Fifth Avenue and 91st Street, right across the street from the entrance to Central Park. The mansion is an architectural beauty both inside and out, and it’s all reviewers can talk about. The detailing on the ceilings, doorways, staircases and moldings are all part of what gives the building its charm. One of the chief concerns of the CH redesign team was how to keep the integrity of this historic building while also presenting the objects of their collection in an educational and inspirational way.
Why did the museum need a makeover in the first place? When visitors come to New York City, the first places they think to go are the Met or MoMA. The Cooper Hewitt probably didn’t even make it to the top-ten list of must-sees, even from seasoned New Yorkers. Many of the exhibitions didn’t catch the attention of reviewers and visitors, and some of the objects quite obviously clashed with or overpowered the building itself. Practically considered a part of the museum’s extensive 210,000-piece collection itself, the mansion took backstage when compared to specific objects on view. In addition, museum labeling and displays needed an update and the use of digital technology was low. Exhibition space was at a minimum.
The many years of planning and implementing changes was worth it. The museum took all these concerns to heart, and then some. The first thing we notice upon entering is that it truly once was a grand mansion. The second thing you may notice is the interactivity of the transformed open space. CH recognizes that visitors are digital-focused now and in order to keep people engaged and interested in what’s on display, a museum has to be more than just a place to show off objects.
Right next to the admissions desk is a computer space where visitors get to design their own furniture and decorative arts with a new interface that uses current objects in the collection as a basis. In the Process Lab, get your hands working at design stations where you can create both digital and real take-home items – putting the visitor in the role of designer. Through the exhibition “Beautiful Users,” interactive features allow users to see how commercial entities create their products based on user information – use the telephone, scale yourself on the digital measurement system, or try your hand at security features. Every floor features something even more exciting and engaging than the one before – it’s up to you to discover all the secrets of the mansion.
In addition to these features, a special pen (known only as the “Pen”) has been developed that will be introduced to visitors early this year. The pen works almost like a magic wand – find an object you enjoy and wish you had in your own home, point your pen at the museum label, and automatically start “collecting” to your heart’s content. The museum will provide these pens to every visitor who stops by, for use during the visitor’s stay, and when the pen is returned at the end of the visit, the user can access his personal collection online through a unique web address printed on his ticket. It’s a great way to keep the conversation going about the museum long after a person visits.
210,000 objects comprise the full collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum, but only 700 of those are on view in the ten inaugural exhibitions. Although it seems to be a small number on view in comparison, every floor is packed to the brim with design objects both old and new. Because of the renovation, 60% more exhibition space has been added to the museum. The exhibitions on the busy second floor, composed entirely of items from the CH collection, include “Passion for the Exotic: Lockwood de Forest, Frederic Church” (where 19th-century America is compared with the arts of India), “Hewitt Sisters Collect” (the first exhibition to tell the story of the collectors who founded the Cooper Union, predecessor to the current museum) and “Making Design” (which offers highlights of the museum collection and how designers design).
Probably the most exciting and eye-popping floor is the third, where the exhibition “Tools: Extending Our Reach” features items that have had life-changing effects, from ancient times to today. This floor is composed of objects from the CH and from other Smithsonian museums. Walking through the curtain of regular every-day tools is thrilling and chilling at the same time. Just past this is a live large video feed of the sun streamed directly from NASA by an orbiting satellite, awesome in its majesty and violence. Other items like a Braille typewriter, a sketchbot that creates your image in sand, and an artificial heart are some of the highlights of the show.
The CH is a place that you can visit again and again and still not see everything there is. It’s a place you can bring your family to, your friends, even your date. The CH is a place that now, after its major renovation and digital upgrade, will make the top-ten list of any visitor to New York. And don’t forget, there’s a café, shop, and gardens that complete the museum, making the CH a perfect place to spend a day.
When you visit the CH, make sure to stop by the Process Lab and let us know your favorite exhibitions. What objects will you take home? How do you see the design of the mansion complementing the design of the exhibition space and the collection? This museum is filled with possibilities and opportunities to learn, to discover, in an attractive and exciting way. In many ways, it’s exactly what museums today need to be doing in order to better engage with their visitors – and keep them actively interested in the collection long after they leave. Located at 2 East 91 Street, general admission costs $18, but buy online for a $2 discount or visit on Saturday nights for pay-what-you-wish admission.