The Cooper Hewitt: A New Model for the Museum Experience?

An art museum where the guards encourage you to touch the art? Sounds ludicrous.

Anyone who has visited a traditional art museum, such as The Metropolitan in New York City, knows the experience to be a fairly serious, solitary one; wary eyes follow your every move as you float silently through opulent rooms filled with precious artifacts. Don’t talk. Don’t breathe. Don’t touch.

The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum is turning that approach on its head. The design museum, which is housed in the Carnegie Mansion on East 91st Street, is redefining the museum experience; it immerses visitors with enchanting interactive exhibits, engaging digital tools and personable staff-visitor interactions. This new model is not only an effective choice for a design museum, but comments on the future of the museum experience as a whole.

Interactive art is far from a new phenomenon. In the 1960s and ‘70s the performance art of Conceptualism and Fluxus frequently encouraged, or even depended on, audience interaction. Yoko Ono’s 1964 performance work Cut Piece instructed the audience to approach the artist—who sat alone on a stage dressed in her best suit—and use scissors to cut off a small piece of her clothing. The City Museum of St. Louis, founded in 1997, was one of the earliest interactive museums. On the twentieth anniversary of its opening Smithsonian Magazine described the museum vividly in a tribute article:

Jutting out of a boxy old shoe factory like growths are a hodgepodge of seemingly random objects, including a ferris wheel, a school bus appearing to tip precariously on the edge of the roof and an old fighter jet. The inside is packed with hundreds of thousands of square feet of things to explore, including tunnels to crawl in, a sculpted cave system, a life-size fiberglass whale to walk through and even a circus ring with daily performances. Incredibly, it’s not a children’s museum—in fact children must be accompanied by adults to enter.

In addition to the playground-esque experience of the City Museum, many museums today are showcasing art that involves the audience in the creative or meaning-making process, particularly through the use of digital technology. And yet the Cooper Hewitt still feels revolutionary.

That is because it is not just a museum with interactive pieces or exhibits. It is an interactive museum experience that breaks down barriers between people as well as between people and art. Perhaps most revolutionary is the guard’s role transforming into that of a guide.

“The security guards at the Cooper Hewitt, they were so… they were knowledgeable and friendly and they were like telling you to touch things,” exclaimed Amy Papaelias, a SUNY New Paltz graphic design professor. Papaelias recently visited the Cooper Hewitt with SUNY New Paltz graphic design students during “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision” exhibit. “There wasn’t this weird divide between the staff and your experience there,” Papaelias continued. In contrast, “when you go to the Met you don’t talk to anybody, you don’t have eye contact, there’s no human interaction,” she said. Papaelias also compared the Cooper Hewitt experience to that of dia:Beacon, which she called “the ultimate white cube experience.”  At the Hudson Valley-based modern art museum “the guard’s job is to make sure you don’t touch anything,” she said emphatically. “It’s like the art and you and there is a barrier and you do not touch it,” Papaelias continued, her hands chopping through space to illustrate her point.

The SensesIn addition to establishing human connection with the security guards, the design museum also regularly includes interactive exhibits, like “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision,” which was on view from April 13 through Oct. 28. “The Senses,” curated by graphic design icon Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps, assistant curator of contemporary design, “examines how multisensory design amplifies everyone’s ability to receive information, explore the world, satisfy essential needs and experience joy and wonder,” according to a February 2018 Cooper Hewitt press release.

“It immediately invited you to start touching things, or smelling things, or experiencing things in ways that are different than when we normally walk into a museum,” Papaelias said, referencing the exhibit’s opening installations: a furry symphonic wall titled Tactile Orchestra and scent-emitting, glowing pillars called Dialect for a New Era.

“It was definitely fun and playful and all these qualities that you think are for kids but made for adults,” said Professor Joshua Korenblat. “It was kind of refreshing. Maybe adults need more of that in public spaces,” the art director and SUNY New Paltz graphic design professor mused.

The Cooper Hewitt has also integrated digital technology into its experience as a tool to allow visitors to further engage with the art. An interactive pen allows visitors to “collect” and “save” objects from around the galleries by pressing the flat end of the Pen to any museum label. Visitors can view their collections online with a code and add to them with each visit. The Pen also allows visitors to explore the digitized Cooper Hewitt collection, play designer and more on large touch screen tables throughout the museum.

The Cooper Hewitt is not alone in its deployment of digital technology as supplements.

As reported by The New York Times in the October 2018 article, “Artificial Intelligence, Like a Robot, Enhances Museum Experiences,” four Smithsonian Institution museums integrated artificial intelligence in the form of robots this year. According to the article, the four-foot-tall, humanoid robots, nicknamed Pepper, “answer visitors’ questions and tell stories, using voice, gestures and an interactive touch screen. They also dance, play games and pose for selfies.” Rachel Goslins, director of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and overseer of the robots’ deployment, stated to The New York Times, “We are asking people to be present, engaged, to have a communal experience. We’re not making you look at your phone even more; we’re creating a playful, joyful human experience.”

But what is it about the interactive experience that is so appealing and effective?

According to Professor Korenblat, Aristotle’s Rhetoric and its three appeals or modes of persuasion— ethos, pathos and logos—can provide some explanation.

“According to Aristotle’s point of view ethos was an appeal to credibility… You’re more likely to believe an authority than just some person on the street,” Korenblat said.  “That’s still true to an extent,” he continued. “You go to a museum because it’s been curated, right? And you know there’s been some experts who decided that these things are worthy of being inside of a museum. But I think these days credibility is also the ability to test it out for yourself. Something about it…” he paused to reflect and continued, “the appeal of it. Being able to touch it, change it, personalize the experience, it feels more credible.” It’s like test driving a car or trying on a pair of shoes before you make the purchase, he said.

So with art, interactivity “makes it extra persuasive,” Korenblat said. “It probably touches on all three of those [appeals] actually. There’s more pathos, more feeling involved, if you can touch it and feel it and interact with it. It feels more credible because you’ve connected yourself to the story that’s unfolding. And certainly logos; you’re going to remember and understand the experience better if you interacted with it than if you just stared at it and read the placard on the wall.”

To sum it up, “interactives provide context that’s missing when you isolate the pieces and put them up on the wall,” Korenblat said.

What does this mean for the future of the museum experience?

As both Korenblat and Papaelias pointed out, a highly interactive museum model is much easier to implement in a design museum because of the nature of design. “A design is usually not intended to be put up on a pedestal and stared at,” Korenblat said. “You’re supposed to interact with it. So, it’s an appropriate choice for [Cooper Hewitt’s] topic.”

But still, the model may find a place in more traditional museums as institutions like the Cooper Hewitt start to “break down some of these boundaries of expectations of what it is to go to a museum,” Papaelias said.

“It’s really about people’s capacity to imagine what’s possible,” Korenblat said. “If you’re only looking at older museum models then you’re going to get the same old museums.”

He then demonstrated what it means to “imagine what’s possible,” asking: “Places like the Met, how could they engage audiences when the work is so expensive and it’s an original and it’s not intended to be picked up and used?” He paused to think. “It’s an intriguing question. I wonder with 3D-printing, could a museum make models of gold from some ancient place and make it look like the real thing and put it out on display so you could put on the jewelry or armor?” he proposed. “Or using augmented reality. Like, if you’re in a room with Rembrandt why can’t there be a 3D walk through of his neighborhood from that time period so you can get a sense for the lighting and the people and the sights and sounds he encountered?”

As digital technology advances and people like Korenblat continue to imagine and question, a more humanized, interactive museum experience moves closer to the standard. While it is no certainty, one might imagine that this model rooted in joy, play and connection would operate with this mantra: “Talk. Breathe. Touch.”

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