The Cooper Hewitt today is the museum equivalent of Steve Jobs. The museum, which is the design division of the Smithsonian, has always been a forward-thinking institution since its founding in 1897. But since its full renovation in 2015, it’s taken its mission to explore the “impact of design on everyday life” to another level with its use of technology, turning the museum-goer from simple viewer into on-the-spot designer.
Let me explain: when a visitor enters this handsome museum (built by tycoon Andrew Carnegie in 1902), he or she is loaned a whizbang, first-of-its-kind, electronic stylus/pen to use throughout the visit. With this in hand, visitors can press the “X”-marked end of the tool to the wall text to save what they’re seeing to a customized website, so they can learn more about these objects and design at home (and for those worried about privacy: your ticket comes with a personal URL, meaning you don’t have to give up your email address or any other personal info). It sounds gimmicky, I know, but I for one delighted in revisiting my favorites once at my personal computer. The other side of the gadget works as a pen, which visitors use at large electronic drafting tables throughout the museum. In a wallpaper room, for example, what you design at the table (sometimes with the help of the historic samples stored in the table’s computer) can be projected onto the walls all around you. It’s great fun for kids, though I must say I saw as many adults scribbling away at the tables as youngsters.
They had much to inspire them. Thanks to the renovation, the museum now has 60% more exhibition space, which it fills with wondrous objects from its collection, everything from a psychedelic Bob Dylan poster, to a contemporary shoulder implant that looks like a crocheted snowflake (it moves inside the body with the flexibility of a sweater), to a 1.2 million-year-old scraping tool. The exhibitions are themed and always changing, so hit the website to see what’ll be there when you arrive.