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Souped-Up Cooper Hewitt: Interactive Pen, Newark-Exiled Collection (with video) CORRECTED

Caroline Baumann, Cooper Hewitt director, holding the "Interactive Pen" Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Caroline Baumann, Cooper Hewitt director, holding the “Interactive Pen”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

More on this here.

It’s way too early to review the renewed and renamed (but not yet reinstalled) Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (formerly, “Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum”). After a protracted three-year closure, it will reopen on Dec. 12.

One thing that I can assuredly say right now is that the former Andrew Carnegie Mansion has great bones. The highlight, for me, of museum’s advance press tour this week was the chance to admire its restored Babb, Cook & Willard-designed spaces, uncluttered by objects.

The room below will house the Design Process Galleries. (CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that it was formerly Andrew Carnegie’s library and would contain an interactive Process Lab.)

For now, it’s attractively empty:

Former Andrew Carnegie Dining Room Photo by James Rudnick, ©2014 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Andrew Carnegie’s dining room
Photo by James Rudnick, ©2014 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

In all, the museum will increase its former 10,000-square-foot exhibition space to 17,000 square feet, with most of the increase coming from the former third-floor library (of which you will catch a glimpse near the beginning of my CultureGrrl Video, below). Much of the former contents of that 6,000-square-foot expanse got relocated to adjacent townhouses owned by the museum.

More problematically: Although the entire second floor with now be devoted to the previously under-exhibited permanent collection, about 70% of the museum’s 210,000 objects is being bumped from the townhouses to storage in Newark, as was revealed to a small group of us by the museum’s curatorial director, Cara McCarty, during the tour. Shuttles notwithstanding, that’s not logistically ideal for the curators or for others who might want to study works in the collection.

The big news, touted as a “global first” and a “paradigm shift,” is the introduction of a clunky-looking “interactive pen,” shown off by director Caroline Baumann in my photo at the top. Bestowed upon all visitors as they enter (and retrieved as they leave), it will allow them to create their own designs with the front end of the pen, and collect information about objects whose labels they touch with the back end.

To access the object information that is stored in the pen’s onboard memory, visitors must take a turn at one of the “interactive tables” in the galleries. Alternatively, they can access the information they’ve gathered via a personally assigned URL on the Cooper Hewitt’s website, using their own web-enabled devices. (Visitors can also access that online information later, any time and any place.)

This seems, at first swipe, like a cumbersome juggling of devices, taking too much time and attention away from the objects themselves. But I’ll have to try the pen myself before penning an appraisal. Disappointingly, we didn’t get a chance to do so during the press tour, because the prototype still needs tweaking and testing, as Baumann told us.

Surprisingly, for a museum that prides itself on its technological sophistication, its website (which I had accessed earlier today) seems to be down at this writing (which is why I’m not linking to it) and its collection has yet to be digitized and posted online. (The hope is that the latter will be accomplished within two years, according to McCarty.)

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the museum told me that the website is working for her. I tried it again, unsuccessfully, on four different devices—two computers, iPhone, iPad, all of which worked fine for other websites. A mystery…

SECOND UPDATE: Website has just started working for me (two hours after I posted this). I’m now told there was a problem with their servers.

For now, come join me while the museum’s director, chief techies and curatorial director explain how they intend to “reinvent the museum experience.” Near the end, you’ll hear me interject a question about how the new technology may change the exhibition program:

an ArtsJournal blog