This Old House: Cooper Hewitt Museum Reopens

On December 12, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum on New York’s Museum Mile will reopen after a three-year renovation of its home in Andrew Carnegie’s former mansion, restoring the jewel-box grandeur of the building while making it far more adaptable to the display of all kinds of design. The museum now has 60 percent more gallery space, a result of a massive reorganizing.

“How can we be good stewards of the Andrew Carnegie mansion, make the most of the footprint we have, but still expand the campus?” Caroline Baumann, the Cooper Hewitt’s director, said of the challenges involved in this $91 million balancing act. Baumann was named director of the museum last year after having worked there since 2001. She helped conceive of the renovation plan under former director Paul Thompson. Baumann hopes to draw half a million visitors in the first year—about double the Cooper Hewitt’s previous annual attendance.

One method of boosting numbers is Bauman’s decision to create a second entrance through the institution’s formerly private garden that will be open before museum hours and will admit free of charge anyone who wants to enjoy the calm oasis. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, one of 13 design teams involved in the renovation, has outfitted the garden entrance with a new canopy, creating a kind of beacon.

“It’s a big philosophical switch, saying, ‘We welcome all,’” Baumann said.

Ingo Maurer's Lamp, "Bulb" (1966) will be featured in the upcoming exhibition "Maira Kalman Selects," on view beginning December 12. COOPER HEWITT, SMITHSONIAN DESIGN MUSEUM, GIFT OF INGO MAURER

Ingo Maurer’s Lamp, “Bulb” (1966) will be featured in the upcoming exhibition “Maira Kalman Selects,” on view beginning December 12.


The biggest change inside is the 6,000-square-foot space on the third floor, accessed by a new staircase designed by Gluckman Mayner. Andrew Carnegie used to practice his putting in the room. More recently it housed the National Design Library, which relocated to an adjacent building in 2011. Now transformed into a flexible contemporary gallery, it will open with the show “Tools: Extending Our Reach,” which includes objects borrowed from nine other Smithsonian collections—including a Paleolithic chopper and computer chips used by the military.
“We have over 30 centuries of design represented in the collection,” Baumann said. “Our mission is to make people understand that breadth from historic to contemporary design.”

A number of Baumann’s opening shows hark back to the institution’s history. On the second floor, in three galleries that were once Andrew and Louise Carnegie’s bedrooms and dressing room, the show “Hewitt Sisters Collect” will tell the story of Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt, who founded the museum as “a practical working laboratory” within the Cooper Union in 1897.

Preserving the Hewitt sisters’ initial concept is the integration of interactive technology throughout the museum. It can be accessed by “the Pen,” a kind of magical design wand developed by Local Projects with Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Tapping the pen on one of the 15 digital tables stationed throughout the galleries will pull up objects from the collection that are not on view. In the new “Immersion Room,” attendees can access anything from the museum’s entire collection of wallpapers and then project what they like on two perpendicular wall-size screens, or draw their own wallpaper with the other end of the Pen.

This experimentation is characteristic of the Cooper Hewitt, one of the first museums to have iPads handy for visitors—though only about 6 percent of them actually took advantage of the offering. Yet Baumann believes that new technology can facilitate a better understanding of design and help break down the walls of the traditional museum experience.

“We’ll see how it works,” she said. “And we’ll iterate, like any good design team.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 52 under the title “This Old House.”

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