The Public as Producer

  • 2016-11-01
  • Art in America

From behind the sleek thermoformed desk that curves through the wood-paneled lobby of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York, an attendant waved at me, hoping to grab my attention as I walked toward the galleries on a recent visit. She had already handed me a ticket, but I was missing something of equal importance: the Pen. This black tube about the thickness of a whiteboard marker with a stylus on one end and a fragmented plus sign on the other is the key to the Cooper Hewitt’s visitor experience and the focal point of one of the most ambitious efforts by any museum to integrate digital technology into its galleries.

The Pen, which allows users to create digital collections and activate displays in the galleries, has been a hit. Visitors have lauded it on Yelp, and museum professionals have analyzed it at conferences. The professional designers’ association AIGA celebrated the device, calling it a “design solution that successfully demonstrates the value of design.” At press time, 185,649 people had used the Pen to interact with the Cooper Hewitt’s exhibitions since the device debuted in early 2015, shortly after the museum reopened following a three-year, $91-million renovation of its Upper East Side home, the former residence of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. A total of thirteen architecture and design firms were enlisted for the overhaul, including New York’s Local Projects, which conceived the Pen. The museum expanded its galleries and refurbished its landmarked building. More important, perhaps, the Cooper Hewitt took the opportunity to rethink its identity, its collecting policies, and even its mission. The Pen is a tangible outcome of these broad efforts. The device embodies a contemporary, process-oriented definition of design, one that the museum champions, business leaders praise, and many cultural institutions are increasingly adopting.