Museums Today: A Glossy Curatorial Redesign

The juxtaposition between the museum’s Victorian façade and its high-tech contents is both jarring and depending on your personal taste, aesthetically off-putting. The Cooper Hewitt’s grand reopening has turned the classic design of a museum on its head and digitized it, replacing minimalism with technological overdesign; quiet with restless rustling and constant din. Everything about the museum’s massive transformation is completely new and encourages digital consumption. Upon entry, every visitor is equipped with an electronic Pen that records information that can be later accessed by the user online. It “collects objects,” enables the visitor to interact with myriad ultra high-definition-touch screen digital worktables and tracks content. In addition to the Pen, which the museum notes is its “most innovative and integral new tool,” most patrons couple the device with their personal cellphones; screens, therefore, ubiquitously stand between the visitor and whatever is directly in front of them. The amount of technology at the Cooper Hewitt is overwhelming and many of the additions scream of design for design’s sake. According to New York Times Museum journalist David Wallis, “Many cultural institutions have also turned to digital technology to transform static labels into compelling interactive attractions.[1]” The Cooper Hewitt purposefully underwent this monumental shift and extended it into all aspect of visitor engagement. It’s not a space where a visitor can simply walk in and explore with ease and it’s definitely not a museum where one would go seeking quiet contemplation, rather, it’s the exact opposite. Obtrusive informational briefings are required in order to train visitors how to experience the space before they can even begin exploring. Understandably, for some, the technological advancements add to their overall experience. The tools temper their wandering attention spans and reframe the museum into a more playful and accessible place. However, for others who go to museums seeking solace and to be with things personally, peacefully, and without constant distractions, the smart devices and high-tech immersion rooms greatly take away from the traditional museum experience.

Museumgoers have changed and museums are rapidly altering their approach to the public in order to remain relevant and build patronage, especially among younger audiences. Museums tend to serve as a respite, a break from the constant distractions of the outside world, however, today, there is no longer any separation. Museums, like libraries and other cultural institutions were once places people could go to escape from the buzzing anxieties of reality. They were places to simply be present, introspective and quiet. Holland Cotter of the New York Times, poignantly writes in her article, Just Being There: Art is what’s in front of your nose. You might not know it, looking at a cellphone, “They (museum patrons) move through galleries fast and with a new purpose – cellphones in hand, they’re on Instagram treks and selfie hunts – and with a new viewing rhythm: Stop, point, pose, snap. If you want, you can even take the tour remotely, virtually, as more and more institutions make their collections accessible on the Internet.”[2] The Cooper Hewitt’s newly renovated galleries cater to this type of audience. According to their new literature, each gallery, “promises new experiences, not only in the way content is displayed, but in how it can be navigated, positioned, interpreted, and seen in relation to collection objects not in the physical galleries. Our exhibitions invite interaction, play, and participation.[3]” These changes push the boundary of what a museum could be, and also, poses the question of what will be the museum of the future? Or as Cotter asks, “What exactly in an age of expanded digital access, are museums audiences seeing? Through electronic media – cellphone screens, laptops, Pintrerst and Skype- we can survey an extraordinary amount of art, see how it is displayed in museum galleries, zoom in on close-up details. But what are we missing by not putting these filters aside and just standing in front of the thing itself (F34)?”

I asked myself these same questions. The Cooper Hewitt is a lively, noisy and highly interactive space that does not invite thoughtful discovery, but rather, encourages active and immediate engagement. It’s a museum that would likely be more attractive to extroverts, and people who wish to talk through their experiences with others. I spent the majority of my time looking for quiet corners where I could personally explore Beautiful Users, an exhibit that highlights designers addressing contemporary human needs and desires, without being molested by other visitors trolling around for their next photo op. It was an enervating experience, which left me to question my position on how museums ought to be configured for the twenty-first century in order to pacify diverse needs.

The ground floor Process Lab is a hands-on learning space aimed at immersing visitors in the design process. Its digital and physical activities are engaging, however, design is presented with a glossy Apple product finish. The why and intentionality of the space is missing, leaving visitors to simply make because that’s what their guided to do. The Cooper Hewitt implemented the lab in order to enable visitors to “Play Designer,” nonetheless, even though it may be an entertaining way to experience the space, it does not provoke museumgoers to actually critically think about design, its implications or consequences which is a dangerous trend within the industry.

Additionally, the high-tech Immersion Room, made me feel as if I were in a design “incubator,” trade show or even lab as opposed to a museum. The room offers visitors an interactive experience and provides them with the tools necessary to sketch their own designs and then project them onto the walls. The shift into the visitor as curator has its merits, however, as a paying visitor, I prefer an educated specialist to subtly guide me through a gallery by establishing a thoughtfully designed floor plan and curatorial statement. Although, the Pen, when it works, is useful to collect large amounts of data, I am skeptical as to how many patrons actually go home and then access what they preserved through their Pen. That said, the Cooper Hewitt was conceived as a “working museum” for designers to engage in an immersive and interactive design experience where direct physical engagement was viewed as a critical part of the creative process. It’s a museum that will not satisfy all audiences, however, for those who seek a “twenty-first” century museum-incubator experience, the Cooper Hewitt is successful and provides a truly unique space to explore.

Museums ought to be seen with the eye and not through a Pen or lens. The Cooper Hewitt’s new identity and reconfiguration as more of a participatory design resource center has fundamentally redesigned the way visitors view its collection. For some, these alterations are absolutely revelatory, and represent a broader cultural transition. However, for people who are less technologically adept, I believe they miss out on the totality of what the museum has to offer. Ultimately, although I personally have an affinity for technology, when it comes to museums, I would rather be left alone to look at what’s in front of me without a filter.

[1] David Wllis, “You Are Here Now, Looking At This, New York Times (New York, NY), March 19th, 2015.

[2] Holand Cotter, “Just Being There, New York Times (New York, NY), March 19th,       2015.

[3] Cooper Hewitt Design Journal, November 2014

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