The Design Behind a Design Museum

The Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum reopened in December 2014 after a three- year renovation, which Sebastian Chan prefers to call a “reboot”.  Chan, the Director of Digital and Emerging Technologies at the museum, recently discussed how the museum reconceptualized the way in which they communicated their collection to the public, as well as how they engaged with their users.

Part of this process involved taking a step back to think about what a design museum is.  Chan described a design museum as one that focuses on how things are made, unlike most museums, which only show the finished object.  This idea was at the forefront of how they decided to reboot their physical space and collections database.  Behind each object in the museum or feature on the website is the idea of its design and how it was brought into being.  Visitors to both the museum and its website become immersed in a design environment and the decisions behind each element included.

This policy of openness begins with the building itself: anyone can “Download the Mansion” from the Cooper-Hewitt website. The Cooper-Hewitt museum is located in the former mansion of Andrew Carnegie, which is in itself, a fascinating study in innovative design.  Prior to it’s reopening, the entire building was scanned to fine detail using a 3D scanner and that scan is available to be downloaded.

In terms of the in museum experience, visitors now receive “the Pen” upon entering. It includes an NFC (Near Field Communication) reader which visitors can touch to any object label and bookmark things they find in the collection.  The Pen also allows visitors to create their own designs on interactive tables. When they leave, visitors return the pen and receive a ticket with a unique web address. They can then see all the things they viewed and designed during their visit.  The website includes a page on the Pen, explaining how it works, how the idea was conceived, and how it is made.

The Pen


The Pen is directly related to the collection browser of the museum, which was also a major part of the reboot. In order for the NFC reader on the Pen to work, the collection database must be consistently updated and maintained. Access to the database is available on seven tables installed throughout three floors of the museum, as well as on the museum’s website.

Data used within the browser is no longer presented as a grid, but as a narrative. Descriptions of objects not only tell you what they are, but also include a section labeled, “Why is this important?” This section explains why and how the object was designed, and why it was acquired, which the museum feels is an important feature to their users.  The data is also linked, enabling one to explore the collection in many different ways: by color, location, tags, related people, etc.

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In addition, all of the metadata used to describe the collection is released on GitHub, which allows users to view the back-end structure/source code. Users can then see the design behind a database as well as the choices made by the creator.

In the beginning of his talk, Chan discussed the rise in data collection within the museum field.  He provided examples of how museums use Wifi, mobile apps, and digital incentives to track visitors and collect information on where in the museum they go and for how long. He also expressed concerns that museums and libraries are becoming too dependent on this numerical data and how the missions of these organizations are becoming quantified.

This also raises questions about infringing on visitors privacy. During their reboot, the Cooper-Hewitt was very deliberate in thinking about what technology to use. When data is collected by the Pen, for example, visitors have the option of leaving it in the museum system or downloading it as a raw file. In Chan’s words, the museum was made ‘digital all over’, but each part can be traced back to a central idea.  The museum is now an open space that encourages interactiveness, epitomizing the definition of a design museum.

One question I wish I had had time to ask Chan, however, is about who the visitors to the museum are. Chan mentioned that the demographic of the neighborhood surrounding the museum was changing and that would, in turn, change the visitor demographic. However, I’m curious to know how the museum determined what it’s user group was going to be post-reboot. Did they aim to connect with a new, anticipated user group or were they hoping to attract a certain user group?