The Cooper Hewitt Museum – Review

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“R2-D2, you know better than to trust a strange computer” 

– C3P0, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

To avid consumers of science-fiction, the prevalence of touchscreens on nearly all flat surfaces is perhaps not such a strange phenomenon. For the average museum visitor though, extracting information from an object that until moments ago played host only to lunch, can not only be puzzlingly novel, but also suspicious.

Their worry is this. Since the birth of the Renaissance (c.1400) people have visited collections to glean the information omitted in writing or lost in reproduction. While guidance and instruction have always featured – be it through organized tours or informative pamphlets –the emphasis has always been on the displayed items. However, as we stumble around in our own digital dark ages[1], this tendency is shifting. Visitors to museums now not only expect a collection of magnificent objects, but also a streamlined and educational digital experience bringing them from ticket booth to café. As these reiterations of the humble audio guide become more elaborate, the concern of our often geriatric visitors is that the flamboyance of a museum’s ‘digital experience’ will begin to outshine the very objects whose viewing pleasure it is intended to enhance.

Evidently, curators have a fine line to tread. A complete rejection of digital tools within the gallery leaves the institution feeling creakingly old. Having said that, yielding to the attitude of ‘more is more’ can lead to such a dominance of screens, that the gallery is bathed in enough blue light to suck the vitality out of even the most charismatic showpiece.

The developers behind ‘The Pen’ at the Cooper Hewett Gallery in New York (part of the Smithsonian Group) are clearly cognizant of how minute the area of equilibrium is. For all its apparent ostentation though, their solution – giant touch screen tables with personal, interactive pens used to document and share one’s visit – is remarkably subtle. Its provision of information is well beyond the scope of a paper guide but it does not suffer from the soporific effect of an educational videogame dressed in too many poorly rendered effects.

Indeed, what the Hewitt now has at its disposal, is a sophisticated pedagogical tool. Not only does it perform efficiently as a guide to the museum’s collection, but the use of interlinking tags and suggested relevant objects allows users to inform their learning of one item by reference to another. Comparative viewing has been an imperative part of the Art History learning curve since Heinrich Wölfflin first introduced it in the early twentieth century. However, where Wölfflin’s slides were subject to jamming machinery, a lack of colour and spontaneous combustion, the process of comparison at the Hewitt is nearly effortless.

For a generation collectively defined by their short attention span, it seems to be a near perfect instructional solution. In an era where the emphasis is on condensing material, the Hewitt’s system is an efficient conduit of the complex, historical information it contains. The addition too of a playful design application is also a heavenly gift for both the frazzled middle-class parent or the bored millennial whose finger is suffering touchscreen withdrawal from the lack of signal in the gallery. Of the designers, it shows their willingness to allow the museum to become a place of recreation and not a Saturday afternoon extension of education. Above all, it reveals their sense of fun.

In offering criticism to the designers of the Hewitt’s ‘New Experience’ it would be directed at specifically two things. Firstly, while the user interface on the table is intuitive enough, with that amount of ‘real estate’ it would be possible to give the object entries a few more square centimeters. The prevalence of buttons leading to, ‘similar objects’, ‘objects with the same tag’, ‘design studio’ and so on felt ever so slightly cluttered and cramped. Secondly, and more generally, the inclusion of other interactive digital elements often did stray into the realm of gimmick. While it is indeed fun to project one’s own wall design onto a blank corner, the queue for that room and notable absence of onlookers next to the Bauhaus furniture right next to the door is perhaps evidence in favour of scrapping that aspect of the exhibit.

[1] A phrase coined by the so-called ‘father of the internet Vint Cerf. The relevant interview can be found from the BBC website at http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31450389.
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