Museum Matters: In Conversation with Caroline Baumann of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
By Artsy Editors
Mar 12, 2013 10:14 am

From 17th-century wearable textiles to airplane-printed wallpaper to part-Kevlar athletic shoes, design has the task of doing double duty: to function while being beautiful. To trace design's history stateside, Artsy turns to its partner the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, the only museum in the U.S. devoted exclusively to historical and contemporary design. Founded in 1896 by three sisters and housed in the former residence of Andrew Carnegie, the museum's mission, like Artsy's, is to educate the public. Caroline Baumann, Acting Director of Cooper-Hewitt, talks to Artsy’s Christine Kuan about robotic eye machines, metadata, and "the most ambitious renovation" in the museum's history.

Christine Kuan: You’ve been Acting Director of Cooper-Hewitt since spring of 2012. What has been your primary focus thus far?

Caroline Baumann: My number one priority is still the expansion of the museum campus here at 91st Street and Fifth Avenue. We’re halfway through the most ambitious renovation in the history of Cooper-Hewitt, which will result in 60% more gallery space and a whole new visitor experience. During this time, we’re also popping up all over New York City and the nation with exciting exhibitions and education programs, from the new Cooper-Hewitt Design Center in Harlem to DesignMiami/.

CK: How is the museum rethinking the architecture of the museum experience with Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R)?

CB: This project gives Cooper-Hewitt the opportunity to reinvent itself, to rethink museum conventions and the entire museum ‘visit.’ We will entice our visitors to become active participants in the design stories we will share. The exhibition installations designed by DS+R and Local Projects will make design stories come alive with multiple interactive components focusing on the design process. Exciting innovations to transform the visitor’s experience are currently in the research and development stage as we digitize and activate the collection.

CK: What is special about the Cooper-Hewitt’s collections and what are the advantages and disadvantages of being part of such an enormous institution?

CB: There are innumerable advantages to being part of the 165 year-old Smithsonian. One of our most important and visible programs is the National Design Awards, which honor the best in American design. First Lady Michelle Obama, honorary patron of the awards, welcomes our honorees to the White house each year. In support of Mrs. Obama’s emphasis on education and youth, the award winners participate in a Teen Design Fair for Washington D.C. high school students. We hold a second Teen Design Fair in New York during National Design Week in October. Our goal is to impact the designers and leaders of the future.

CK: It seems like every museum today is ramping up their efforts on the digital front. What is Cooper-Hewitt’s approach to museums and technology?

CB: Technology helps us fulfill our mission by enhancing a visitor’s experience, online and in the galleries. Our goal is to educate, inspire, and empower—to enrich peoples’ lives through design. It’s no longer enough to merely describe—we need to create engagement. We are striving for a seamless physical/digital experience with a visible, useable collection.

This past fall we launched “Object of the Day”, which is a new section of our website designed to foster ongoing engagement with our collection. We feature a new collection work daily and draw from more than 217,000 objects spanning 30 centuries in our four curatorial departments—Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design, Product Design and Decorative Arts, Textiles and Wallcoverings—and the National Design Library. Users can subscribe to the daily email here.

We also share our collection dataset with platforms like Artsy and Google Art Project to allow for increased discoverability, and sharing of objects. The chance discovery of a new designer or artist that happens roaming in a museum or gallery is replicated through browsing these sites.

CK: How did Cooper-Hewitt start and what were the origins of the collection?

CB: Cooper-Hewitt was founded in 1897 by Amy, Eleanor, and Sarah Hewitt—granddaughters of industrialist Peter Cooper—as part of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The Hewitt sisters studied the collections of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and their ambition was to create a museum of equal standard in New York. I’ve highlighted a few of my favorites in this interview.

CK: What do you think are the two most challenging issues facing art museums today?

CB: Being a design museum, one of our most challenging issues is educating visitors about the collection and getting them to experience design. During the renovation we are purposely being promiscuous with our content. We’ve been opening up our metadata for free public access and reuse, and we’ve been partnering with many organizations to spread our collections and knowledge far and wide.

One way to help make our 217,000 objects in the collection accessible is to search by color. Objects now have up to five representative colors attached to them. The colors have been selected by robotic eye machines who scour each image in small chunks to create color averages. When someone searches the collection for a given color we manage their query down to a manageable set of 121 colors. This functionality is really addictive.

Caroline Baumann is Acting Director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. She joined Cooper-Hewitt in 2001, following several leadership positions at The Museum of Modern Art. Baumann and the Cooper-Hewitt team are currently working with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Local Projects, and Pentagram, on the reopening of the museum campus in 2014. She is leading the transformation and creation of immersive museum spaces and memorable visitor experiences to realize the ambition of explaining design.

Portrait by Katie Shelly