The Pen at the Copper Hewitt 

by Katherine Hall, Staff writer

In a previous Art of Technology article, we looked at interactive design firm, Local Project’s, work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. In Cleveland’s traditional fine arts atmosphere, the new technology is contained in the Gallery One space. Today, we’ll discuss another Local Projects venture that takes a very different approach. At the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, the firm has integrated interactive technology through the entire building.

Housed in the historic Carnegie Mansion along Manhattan’s Museum Mile, from the outside its hard to guess that the Cooper Hewitt is full of innovative new technology. However, from the moment visitors enter the museum they are given an electronic Pen to carry with them during their visit. The Pen not only allows them to click and draw on interactive surfaces in the museum, it includes a scanner that can be touched to a small barcode that accompanies nearly every item on display. By scanning an object’s code the visitor saves it to their personal cache and upon leaving they can access their selections and learn more about them at a custom URL address. While not all visitors make use of their online cache, the function still provides important information to the museum about how many people do follow up after their visit, how they moved through the museum and which objects are the most intriguing to visitors. Although only about a third of Pen users accessed their personalized URLs after their visit, the Cooper Hewitt now has a baseline from which to measure improvement. 

The Pens can also be used on the Cooper Hewitt’s interactive tables and in the Immersion Room. The interactive tables are located throughout the museum, and table users can explore the museum’s collection or take a turn at designing something themselves. Similar to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One touch screen wall, the Cooper Hewitt tables stream thumbnails of works in the collection and when clicked on users can learn more about that work and browse related objects. The design feature allows visitors to actively participate in the creative process by making their own architecture, furniture, and other designs and allowing them to save these creations on their Pen. 

The Cooper Hewitt

The Immersion Room takes interactive technology a step further, creating an environment where visitors not only have access to the entire wallpaper archive but can also choose to have their own designs digitally projected to cover the room. Previously, the museum’s extensive collection of wall coverings were only able to be viewed in small sample swatches. That format made it hard to imagine what a whole room would look like covered in a design. As the museum’s website states, “more than just entertainment, the Immersion Room provides the first opportunity to discover Cooper Hewitt’s wall coverings as they were intended to be viewed.” In addition, the Immersion Room allows users to draw their own wallpaper swatch and project it across the whole room; yet another opportunity for creating and participating in design as well as viewing it. On a recent visit, users of the immersion room tables drew everything from random squiggles, to writing their names, to intricate patterns. The ability to see a sample replicated across the walls instead of just a single square proved to be a valuable design lesson to users as they experimented with filling in the whole swatch to create continuous patterns or leaving areas blank to allow for more space between patterns. 

The Immersion Room at the Cooper Hewitt

The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum has proven to be the perfect testing ground for interactive technology in arts institutions. The Pens allow visitors to have a seamlessly integrated art viewing experience while encouraging them to engage in creative activity. Local Projects’ implementation leads to not only aesthetic appreciation of design but a greater understanding of the design process, a combination that makes it easy to see why incorporating technology into museum experiences is such a rapidly growing trend.