Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa
Te Rau Herenga O Aotearoa

‘I Hear & I Forget. I See & I Remember. I Do & I Understand’: Report On 2013 ‘Paul Reynolds Scholarship’ Placement At The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

Author: Virginia Gow
Series: NZLIMJ Vol 53. No. 3
Publication date: Thu, 2014-02-13


By Virginia Gow
First World War Centenary programme office, Ministry for Culture & Heritage




This report documents the results of a three-week placement at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, as the recipent of the 2013 Paul Reynolds Scholarship.

My focus for this internship was on advancing my existing skill set in traditional digital content publishing to study ‘experiential learning’ strategies in collecting institutions and other heritage sites – and the role of digital media in these.

Experiential learning approaches take information and ideas (for example the process of design) and turn them into experiences – i.e. things that you can do and actively participate in; either online or in person or both. This is believed to be highly effective for helping people to learn.

The Cooper-Hewitt is currently closed to the public, and transforming into a ‘laboratory’, or ‘teaching tool’, for design – with collections-based enquiry at the heart of the visitor experience, and the physical connected to the digital and the other way around. Facilitating experiential learning will be a key component of the redeveloped museum.

Many details of the museum’s new ‘active visitor’ experience are still being defined; and remain confidential until the museum re-opens in late 2014. These are omitted from the report.

The report also details the broader context for the museum’s transformation, influences on their particular approach, contrasting approaches in other institutions, and comments on other aspects of the placement of potential interest to equivalent New Zealand organisations.


Introducing the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum

 image of shadow of a gate on the concrete

Outside the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum


“ONE of the most modern of Museums really originated centuries ago, and such diverse and irrelevant events as religious controversies, fires, escapes, wars, poverty and romance, steam engines and miracles contributed to making it inevitable.” ~ Eleanor G. Hewitt, The Making of a Modern Museum (1919)[1]

Between 13 September and 4 October 2013, I spent three weeks with the Digital and Emerging Media Department at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, as the recipient of the 2013 Paul Reynolds Scholarship.

The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum was founded in 1897 by the Hewitt sisters, Sarah and Eleanor, as part of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art – the free school for adults on the Lower East Side of New York City, established by the Hewitt sisters’ grandfather, Peter Cooper.

Peter Cooper, an industrialist, had planned a building for “education and recreation” (the Cooper Union) with “one whole floor to be used as a museum for the exhibition of mechanical devices and for a cosmorama – for the pleasure, instruction and enjoyment of all who could not visit foreign lands”[2]. He died before he could see his plan for the museum through.

The museum the Hewitt sisters founded in their grandfather’s memory was very much in the spirit of the Cooper Union that housed it, with an emphasis on practical education and open access. The Hewitt sisters wanted to develop a museum that was a tool “for the use of the community” – not just a showcase for the delight of the curator.

They wanted people to come to the museum to learn – and to draw on the museum’s objects for reference and inspiration, “then go out and create their own innovative objects and in this way help raise the quality of American design”[3].

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum retains this emphasis on education, and is now the only museum in America devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design.

Its mission is “to advance the public understanding of design across the thirty centuries of human creativity represented by the Museum’s collection”[4] – which numbers over 217,000 decorative and design objects and a national design library.

In 1967 the Smithsonian Institution took over the Cooper-Hewitt, making it the first Smithsonian museum to exist outside of Washington DC. As a federal institution, it was therefore part of the historic partial shutdown of government services that occurred from 1October 2013.

The museum is also heavily reliant on private funding to operate – a distinction between American institutions and equivalent New Zealand ones, at least at present.

The Cooper-Hewitt is now housed in a historic mansion on the more affluent Upper East Side, the Andrew Carnegie Mansion (built 1899-1902). It is situated on ‘museum mile’, Fifth Avenue, just opposite the reservoir in Central Park, and a block or so from the exclusive Madison and Park Avenues.

The museum also leases long-term storage space in Newark, New Jersey, to house most of its permanent collection and to provide additional collection-based workspace.

The Carnegie Mansion is currently closed for two years as part of an estimated US $64 million renovation that will add 6,000 square feet of galleries (a 60% increase in the museum’s exhibition space) and restore historic spaces.

The museum closed in September 2011, choosing to continue curatorial and education programming around New York city – including opening a custom education and outreach space in Harlem, at the northern tip of Central Park. It will re-open in 2014.

image of street map Photo of streetsign for Museum Mile and 5th Ave

Location of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, with Central Park to the left.

Museum Mile, 5th Avenue sign, outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Photo of Carnegie Mansion through trees with scaffolding Photo of sign outside museum saying ‘Everything about the museum is open, except the museum’

The Carnegie Mansion, under scaffolding.

‘Everything about the museum is open, except the museum’. Sign outside the Cooper-Hewitt Carnegie Mansion.

Photo of postcard with basic streep map Photo showing window of the design center
Postcard for the Cooper-Hewitt Design Centre, in Harlem. Facade of the Cooper-Hewitt design Center in Harlem.


When open to the public, average visitation to the museum each year is around 200,000 visitors. Unlike most Smithsonian Institution museums, the Cooper-Hewitt does not (or rather, did not at the time of its closure for renovations in September 2011) have free entry.

The Carnegie Mansion’s campus also includes two historic townhouses, which are home to most of the small staff of 73 members, more than half of whom are grant (rather than federally) funded. This is where I spent most of my time when in the office with the Cooper-Hewitt Labs team.

The current director of the museum is Caroline Baumann, the former deputy director, who has been at the Cooper-Hewitt for over a decade. Baumann was appointed following the unexpected passing of the late Bill Moggridge, a director who re-envisioned an ‘active visitor’ to the museum – where the physical would be connected to the digital, and the other way around.[5]

The opportunity to study an institution in the midst of transforming itself into an experiential and networked learning environment (an environment for ‘learning by doing’ around collections, using digital media) was a major motivation for my application to spend time at the Cooper-Hewitt.

The following sections document (in part) what I discovered. The report supplements a blog post I had the opportunity to write for the Cooper-Hewitt Labs website while I was still in New York.

The next section looksthrough the lens of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s educational programmes to ask what is design?, setting a context for discussion of the work of the Digital and Emerging Media Department and the use of digital media for experiential learning in museums.


Experiential learning and design thinking: an educational mission

“The ambition would be that every kid in America has some experience with design before they’re 12 and the opportunity to study it in high school if they wish” ~Bill Moggridge.[6]

The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is well known for its local and national educational outreach programmes. These encourage Americans (young and old) to explore design in the everyday, and to see how it can be used to improve the world we live in.

One such programme is Design in the classroom, which aims to introduce students to what design is, in 45 minutes. It is a relatively new initiative, based in New York City, that has been so successful the sponsors, Target, are providing additional funding for it to be taken nationally.

Talking about Design in the classroom in early 2013 at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Center in Harlem, Director of Education, Caroline Payson, described design as “creative problem-solving, with a user in mind”. “Design,” Payson explained, “is different from art, which is more about personal expression.” Systems and experiences can also be ‘designed’ – it’s not just things.

To teach ‘design’ in the classroom, the Cooper-Hewitt sends an educator into the school environment with a kit containing a design problem (modified depending on the age of students) and a set of materials for prototyping a solution. One of the ideas is to show students that “we are all designers, everyday” – a philosophy that carries across to the museum redevelopment.

Within the programme, students work together through a design process to define the problem and understand the user, brainstorm ideas (including through rapid prototyping), and talk about their design to receive feedback and critique. By the end of the workshop, they have a basic understanding of design and have solved a challenge through prototyping.

One of the models for this ‘design thinking’ approach, talked about by staff at Cooper-Hewitt, is the in Stanford. As the website for the d-school states:

We welcome our students with a methodology for innovation that combines creative and analytical approaches, and requires collaboration across disciplines.  … At the, we learn by doing. We don’t just ask our students to solve a problem, we ask them to define what the problem is. Students start in the field, where they develop empathy for people they design for, uncovering real human needs they want to address. They then iterate to develop an unexpected range of possible solutions, and create rough prototypes to take back out into the field and test with real people. Our bias is toward action, followed by reflection on personal discoveries about process. Experience is measured by iteration: students run through as many cycles as they possibly can on any project. Each cycle brings stronger insights and more unexpected solutions.[7]

The Design in the classroom programme teaches similar skills. This iterative design process was also evident throughout the work of the wider museum as they prepare for re-opening.

Caroline Payson suggests that ‘design thinking’ is not typically part of the American educational experience. However, it taps naturally into 21st century skills and literacies and common Core skills (equivalent to ‘core competencies’ in the New Zealand curriculum). Teachers, for example, have reported that students exposed to design thinking have become more active learners in the classroom and are more engaged.

When the Cooper-Hewitt re-opens in 2014, modeling the design process and encouraging ‘learning by doing’ will be a large part of the onsitevisitor experience – including a designated lab where visitors and school groups can engage in applied design exercises, handling design objects and going deeper into the design process using interactive technologies. Other developments will be discussed in Section 6 of this report.

Another signature initiative is the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Awards. Equivalent in part to New Zealand’s ‘Best Awards’, the Design Awards are accompanied by Cooper-Hewitt educational programmes such as National Design Week, and the Teen Design Fair. I attended the Teen Design Fair in Washington DC during my first week in America.

The free Teen Design Fair (also held in New York City) brings together over 300 teenagers in a speed dating-like event where high school students can receive ‘one-minute mentoring’ from present and past recipients of National Design Awards, and other top designers. Students can ask anything they want of the mentors – and they certainly didn’t hold back.

Photo of Sign Photo of paper with prompts displayed
Sign welcoming students to the Teen Design Fair in Washington DC. Conversation prompts for teens attending the Teen Design Fair.
Photo of Chad Hurley with a group of students Photo of Evan Roth and students

Chad Hurley, founder of Youtube, talks about his new collaborative video-making application, 'Mixbit' 'Capture, collaborate, combine'.

Artist and 'cultural hacker', Evan Roth (whose work I discovered at the Teen Design Fair, and found inspiring)  not to obsess over their portfolio, to also focus on finding their passion.

Photo of Charles Adler advising students

Photo of  Jake Barton

Charles Adler, co-founder of Kickstarter, advises students to "find interests outside of school".

Jake Barton, principal and founder of Local Projects, talks about how museum media projects are the work of lots of people, not just individuals.


The Teen Design Fair is one of several free ‘DesignPrep’ programmes for teens run by the Cooper-Hewitt in which students can achieve a digital badge – another recently introduced initiative, and one reasonably new to museum educational and lifelong learning programming.

Digital badging is a ‘micro-reward’ system akin to the Girl Guide / Scout achievement badge scheme. At the Cooper-Hewitt, digital badges record and display the concepts, skills and work that learners develop during their time in a given workshop or event.

Students at the Teen Design Fair, for example, were given a challenge sheet to complete, earning their digital badge and the chance to win a prize. As Digital Education Coordinator, Halima Johnson, writes, “the goal of this effort is to construct a digital record of students’ extracurricular learning and providing recognition for the technical and conceptual skills students gain through their involvement with the Cooper-Hewitt programs.”[8]

The Cooper-Hewitt has established a reputation for innovative educational programming, in addition to strong curatorial programmes. In the next section, we meet the team responsible for driving the museum’s transformation “from a zero tech museum to a high tech museum. In a historic house.”[9]


The people of the Labs

Photo of a quote

Quote from Carl Malamud in the Digital and Emerging Media Department.


My time in New York City was primarily spent in the Digital and Emerging Media Department of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum: the engine room for integrating digital media into the museum’s online and onsite environment.

The Digital and Emerging Media team – also known as the ‘Labs team’ – works closely with almost all of the museum’s other departments. It comprises five core roles.

Shamus Adams and Katie Shelly have primary responsibilities for AV and media production – typically in service of educational and curatorial programming. Katie describes this as ‘the short term stuff’ (or ‘pixel pushing’). However, she is also bringing a future focus on user-centered design and design research into the work of the institution.[10]

Two memories of time spent with Katie Shelly, among many, stand out. The first is recording and live streaming a public talk at the Cooper-Hewitt design center in Harlem (the videos are streamed and archived on Youtube). Katie has also been recording video interviews to understand the needs and motivations of potential Cooper-Hewitt audiences, in Harlem.

Photo of Shamus and Katie

Photo of Katie Shelly setting up to video

Shamus Adams and Katie Shelly film an interview with a student at the Teen Design Fair.

Katie Shelly setting up to video Harlem Focus talk, Urban Woodland Restoration: Design & Nature's Habitat, September 25 2013

Photo of audience Photo of interview questions
Audience at Urban Woodland Restoration: Design & Nature's Habitat public talk, September 25 2013, 6.30 pm. Interview questions for video interviews with Cooper-Hewitt audiences.


The second is a user-focused design session that Katie led with the Smithsonian ‘Encyclopedia of Life’ team where, in addition to being given an opportunity to showcase New Zealand sites Te Ara and Digital New Zealand, I was introduced to a design game for problem solving called ‘reverse it’.

In ‘reverse it’ instead of solving the actual design problem, the design team sketches solutions for the problem’s reverse. So if the problem you are trying to solve is that visitors aren’t using your online collections (and you want them to do this), then you sketch what it would look like if you didn’t want visitors to use any of your online collections. It was fun and enlightening.

Another team member, Micah Walter, is the Webmaster with a focus on programming and website development. For example, Micah supported the education department’s redesign of their website to provide resource kits in support of increased interest from teachers. He will also take responsibility for migration of the museum’s website from Drupal to Wordpress, and integration with Tessitura – the Events Management System.

Within the Labs, Micah has done some great quick-fire experiments over the past two years, especially coming to terms with the new Application Programming Interface (API) for the museum’s online collections. Most of these experiments are documented on the Cooper-Hewitt’s Labs blog. Through Micah I also came close to learning how to use a Raspberry Pi.[11]

Aaron Straup Cope, a recent hire, is the senior engineer who describes his role as: “30% working with the rest of the Labs team to figure out what it means, in concrete terms, to make the museum well-and-truly part of the internet and the rest of the time is spent designing and building the systems to make that happen.” Not from a museum background, Aaron brought a thoughtful questioning to almost everything happening around me.

Aaron also led a postgraduate course at Pratt Institute on ‘museums and the network’, which I attended on Tuesday evenings and gave a guest lecture at. Other guest lecturers included George Oates, previously of Open Library at the Internet Archive and now at Stamen design; and Fiona Romeo previously at the National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory.

Among the many ideas I gained from this course was the concept of ‘plus it’ from Fiona Romeo – an expression “regularly used by Walt Disney to inspire his teams to make an idea even better, even when they thought they’d already nailed it”. To ‘plus’ something is to look at something you think is finished, and ask yourself how you can push it even further.

The Labs team’s intrepid (or rather, shepherding) leader is Seb Chan, an antipodean previously at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. The Cooper-Hewitt, and particularly the late Bill Moggridge, hired Seb “to initiate and shepherd a digital transformation of the institution during this critical renovation and rebuilding moment”.

Photo of Seb Chan and Aaron Straup Cope

Museums and the Network (subtitle Caravvagio in the age of Dan Flavin lights)' at Pratt Institute.


In addition to managing the Digital and Emerging Media department, much of Seb’s time is “spent helping embed digital into the design, decision making, strategy and all the operations of the museum – from community building to the exhibitions and experiences planned for the new galleries, from collecting and preserving born-digital objects as part of the collection, to the new production workflows and processes required to make this a reality”[12]. With Aaron, for example, Seb led the acquisition of the museum’s first piece of code.

Also co-located with the Digital and Emerging Media department is Laurie Bohlk, who works in Communications and Marketing and updates the website and social media channels.

Pam Horn, Head of Cross-Platform Publishing, similarly works closely with the Labs team and has the sizable task of managing all of the print publications for the museum as well as e-books and object label co-ordination, editing and delivery.  One of Pam’s triumphs was getting curators to work directly into collaborative Google Docs to share object label content, which will also be stored in the online collection system.

By virtue of a desire to be “of the web, not just on the web”[13], the Labs team are pushing change throughout almost every aspect of the museum – including the overall visitor experience. It was a joy to be in their company.

Group photo 

With the people of the Labs {eating a menu of degustation desserts) -
Katie Shelly, Micah Walter, (me), Aaron Straup Cope, Seb Chan [photo by Amanda Kesner].


The next section discusses some of the significant characteristics of this team’s modus operandi, and the emerging culture of the wider museum.


Getting the job done

“The revolution is picking up speed. We’re building the railroad we’re riding on. The image to think about is that you’ve got a train going at seventy miles an hour down the tracks, and you’re trying to lay tracks six inches in front of the engine.” ~ Paul Saffo, in Bill Moggridge Designing Media[14]

In his 2013 keynote at MuseumNext, Seb Chan summarised his strategy for embedding digital thinking and productivity across the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum:

  1. Declare intent

  2. Form the team

  3. Take irreversible actions

  4. Accelerate inhouse production

  5. Promiscuous collaboration

  6. Set a rhythm of release

  7. Maintain focus on long term


One of Seb’s first steps was to create a team that contained in-house development resource. Due to their funding models, American institutions are often caught in a pattern of out-sourced development, going from ‘project to project’ / ‘grant to grant’. Digital production can end up driven by vendors and sponsors – not the long-term interests of the institution or their audience.

On the surface, a day in the life of the Labs team doesn’t seem too different from any other digital media team’s daily life (at least ones that I’ve worked in). Future-focused things to do are listed out on an office whiteboard. Meetings happen. Emails circulate. Bits and bytes are produced.

But the team is also having some serious fun. Imperfection for the sake of getting ideas out where people can respond to them is encouraged. ‘Walking meetings’ occur around the reservoir in Central Park. Laughter is frequent. Most importantly, stuff to think with regularly gets made.

During my first week in the office, Senior Engineer Aaron Straup Cope rapidly prototyped an experimental feature for the Cooper-Hewitt’s new collections website to show the relationship of a given object in the collection to its place in the institution’s history. In just a few days, this visualization tool appeared; was discussed; was refined; was published; and then documented.

It wasn’t perfect, but it worked – a value of ‘institutional wabi-sabi’ that the Labs team is trying to spread more widely across the museum. Accepting ‘public imperfection’ can be a challenge when, influenced by a tradition of exhibition development, stakeholders and the board expect polish – not works in progress or prototypes.

But the ‘release quickly and iterate’ approach helps the Labs team to keep the digital presence in sync with – and able to support – the evolving ideas about the wider museum visitor experience.

Photo of the Central park reservoir 

The Central Park reservoir, home to walking meetings of the Cooper-Hewitt Labs team.


When he joined the Cooper-Hewitt, Seb established the ‘Labs’ blog to encourage, document and share experimentation. Immersed in the Labs environment I discovered that many of the innovative features documented on the blog were born out of necessity, or designed in response to the specific museum context and collection of the Cooper-Hewitt. This was an important lesson.

For example, the extensive connections between collection items, and between Cooper-Hewitt collection items and external sources, was a feature I had been particularly impressed with when the team re-launched its collections website earlier in 2013.

Here is Webmaster Micah Walter describing a ‘person’ concordance (or cross-reference) for example:

“Navigating to the “person” page for Richard Avedon, we begin to see how these connections can extend beyond our own institutional research. We begin by pointing out what kinds of things we have by Avedon. This is pretty straight-forward, but in the gray box on the right you can see we have also linked up Avedon’s person record in our own TMS database with a wide variety of external datasets. For Avedon we have concordances with Freebase, MoMA, the V & A, and of course Wikipedia. In fact, we are pulling in Wikipedia text directly to the page.”

Conversations with museum staff, however, revealed that the Cooper-Hewitt has been relatively slow to get its collection documentation online.

In 2007, in anticipation of closing for the renovation, the museum began a 100% inventory of collections – using The Museum System (TMS), a collections information system used by many Smithsonian arts institutions. Before the new collections website, collections were delivered online using an off-the-shelf module, ‘eMuseum’

Most of the collection items just have scant (or ‘tombstone’) metadata, without a photographic representation. Before the new collections website, with its extensive cross-references, there was therefore little sense of the broader context or possible story an object might tell.

Establishing connections with other collection items; and more significantly information – or metadata – already existing in other (external) online collections was therefore a way to quickly increase the amount of contextual information in the system without ‘reinventing the wheel’. Similarly, allowing users to connect their own photographs of objects up to collection items was a way to augment the scant visual record.

This openness to collaborate and to be part of the network (both institutional and technological) is characteristic of the work of the Cooper-Hewitt Labs.

Screenshot of NZ object available

One of five objects from New Zealand available through the online collections API.


There is some potential for equivalent New Zealand museums with design collections (and harvestable metadata) to become part of this eco-system.

Reciprocally, in early 2012, the Cooper-Hewitt released all of their collection metadata under CC0 on Github, and there is now also an open API for the Cooper-Hewitt collections metadata

The curatorial team received funding from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee to write the object of the day blog, which was tweaked by the Labs to encourage museum-wide creation of deeper content – content that can be drawn on to inform narratives in the collections database and explain the significance, design process and story of the objects.

One of the more recent interesting ‘objects’ of the day to appear recently is the source code for Planetary, a piece of music visualization software. Museums tend to be slow at collecting ‘the present’ – and especially digital media. In part, this stems from the fact that exhibiting typically drives museums, which is challenging where software is concerned. How, for example, do you exhibit (and tell the multi-faceted design process and usage story) of Facebook?

The Labs see these uncertainties as further opportunities for experimentation. One of the innovative approaches to the question of how to preserve software (rather than the carrier such as an iPad it worked on), for example, is releasing the source code on GitHub. As Aaron and Seb wrote on the ‘object of the day’ blog “Planetary and other software like it are living objects … their acquisition simply transfers them to a new home environment where they can be cared for out of the wild”.

The willingness of Cooper-Hewitt staff to work outside their department, and the level of internal collaboration between educators, curatorial staff (including across different disciplines) and digital / media specialists in the work I observed, and heard about, was striking.

For example, each curator had been paired with an educator to help them refine object selections to those which would resonate most with audiences; and find metadata terms to describe the objects in a way that would help audiences unlock the design process – frequently verbs to the curator’s nouns.

In addition to enhancing the overall product and visitor experience, a multi-disciplinary or multi-departmental approach helps mitigate the risk of unsustainable development and a large digital investment for short term-only gain, as the whole museum moves through the change together. Success doesn’t – and can’t – rest on an individual.

At the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, as Seb also stated in his MuseumNext keynote, not only is ‘digital thinking’ being spread across the organisation, it’s also being “embedded in the fabric of the building”. The high level of integration between collections online and onsite within the building was what impressed me the most.

The following section examines some of the values and influences shaping this new direction.


Re-imagining the onsite visitor experience: “the building as the biggest user of our API”

“When we reopen, expect a lot more things to do when you come to the museum […]. It will be more of a combination of learning by doing and learning by seeing.” ~ Bill Moggridge[15]

Closing the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum has brought the opportunity to re-think the whole in-person visitor experience, and particularly the use of technology within the galleries/building and how that relates to the online experience.

In contrast to the direction an art museum might take, the Cooper-Hewitt is returning to its pre-modernist roots (as described in the opening section), with collection “objects … there for use to be worked from”.

Photo of visitors

Former visitors to the Cooper-Hewitt using the collection. Photo from


One of the motivations underlying the renewal of the visitor experience is to facilitate a more “active visit” by a more diverse audience – at the same time as attempting to deepen the existing audience and ensure they still recognise ‘their’ Cooper-Hewitt on re-opening.

Though there are points of commonality, the difference between using digital media for interpretation in service of a design museum’s mission compared to the approach an art museum might take was suggested through a visit to the Frick Museum, a collection of over 1,100 artworks.

Also on the Upper East Side, and also housed in a historic mansion (a significant component in the visitor experience), the Frick is a quiet contemplative space – an oasis from the busy streets of New York.

A personal digital audio guide helps you to ‘look at’ and understand the works from an art historical viewpoint. No photography is allowed. An information kiosk is tucked discreetly away in the entrance hallway to the restrooms.

Photo of mobile phone Photo of collections kiosk

Random-access digital audio guide to the Frick collection, which, like the Cooper-Hewitt, is set in a historic mansion. As Seb said, “you can only have one Frick in New York”.

Collections information kiosk at the Frick, tucked in the hallway on the way to the opulent restroom.


Exploring the new Audio+ guide at MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, also hinted at this distinction. The Audio+ guide focuses the visitor on deeper looking at (and contemplation of) unique art works, and understanding of the art on view – including the ability to take photographs which, along with information about works viewed, can later be revisited and reflected upon online.

photo of signage photo of rental devices
Signage to get the Audio+ (a process managed by a third-party supplier. Queues were long. Charging and re-setting the rental devices.


Surprisingly, even visitors carrying their own devices are opting in to the ‘all in one’ MoMA-supplied device (possibly due to the high number of international tourists), generating over 100,000 photographs since the soft launch in July 2013. Developed using agile methodology, the Audio+ guide also emerged out of a collaborative edu-curatorial-digital team practice.

Photo of art on iPod Touch screen Photo of person photographing a label
Viewing art through the lens of the iPod Touch. How many visitors returned to their photographs after the visit, I wonder? Making a memory note of works viewed – photographing a label.


Using mobile devices like these to deliver information to museum visitors about objects on display is becoming standard in museums – and museums are increasingly optimising displays (and online content) to bridge the divide between the physical space and the network.

Visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, can take photographs of art works using Google Goggles, revealing information about them on a cell phone. With Google Glass, you can also detect information about (or at least the names of) almost all of the paintings in the Met’s collection

Photo of Stanley William Hayter artwork Photograph of Google Goggles
Stanley William Hayter, Cinq Peronnages, 1946. Gift of Paul F. Walter, 1980 (1980.1117.1). At the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photographing Stanley William Hayter, Cinq Peronnages, 1946 (1980.1117.1) using Google Goggles, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo of information on wall  
Information about Stanley William Hayter, Cinq Peronnages, 1946 (1980.1117.1) via Google Goggles, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this instance, information provided was less substantial than that on the wall label.  


The envisioned “active visitor” to the renovated Cooper-Hewitt, however, will not necessarily be glued to information on their phone during the museum visit, but actively engaging with the design process and stories, ideas, and knowledge latent in the museum’s objects and collections. The strategy for achieving this vision is currently confidential.

For principle of Local Projects, Jake Barton – the re-opened Cooper-Hewitt will be an environment that “makes design something people can participate in” – not just look at or learn ‘about’ through didactic label text or the end-product of someone else’s creativity.

Local Projects are the media partners for the Cooper-Hewitt refurbishment, with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfo. Their philosophy of striving for ‘experiential learning’ opportunities is encapsulated in a quote from Confucius that Jake frequently references in his public talks:

I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.


In the context of the Cooper-Hewitt, looking and doing will be about designing.

To understand more about Local Projects’ approach, it is worth watching Jake Barton’s EYEO talks: 2011:; 2012:; 2013:

Local Projects also provided media expertise for the 9/11 Memorial and the 9/11 Memorial Museum (which was not yet open), and the recently re-opened Gallery One at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Photo of jake barton  Photo of outdoor kiosk at 9/11 memorial

Jake Barton in the Local Projects studio.

Outdoor kiosks for finding names on the 9/11 Memorial. Once you locate a name, you can SMS or email the information to yourself; or print a location map.

Photo of memorial note photo of memorial showing Alan Anothony Beaven's name
As an international visitor who didn’t know anyone in 9/11, I chose to find a New Zealander, Alan Anthony Beaven (born in Devonport, New Zealand). Alan Anthony Beaven’s name on the memorial.


photo of rose on memorial

White rose to mark the birthday of Mon Gjonbalaj (laid by the 9/11 Memorial). Local Projects developed the software to help the 9/11 Memorial co-locate names on the memorial, which are organised into ‘meaningful adjacencies’ – rather than alphabetically.
As well as the kiosks and website to locate names on the memorial, a ‘Memorial Guide’ app provides the same function, along with stories in remembrance of selected names on the memorial, in the voices of those who knew them or were there on 9/11.

As an independent visitor, listening to the stories, human and emotional, was incredibly moving. Authentic audio (rather than actors reading scripts) is very powerful and emotive. Another app, ‘Explore 9/11’ provides a GPS-enabled walking tour, augmented with the day’s events in the words and voices of those who were there, with photographs. Photographs (including user-generated ones) can also be overlaid at the site using Augmented Reality to give a sense of the impact of the event.

Photo of thank you for visiting sign

I didn’t notice many people using the apps to augment the memorial experience at the 9/11 Memorial, which – compared with the way to connect with other visitors on social media – were poorly promoted to general visitors. In contrast, many people watched the information video in the Visitor Centre, which also provided ticketing and souvenirs.

In addition to the 9/11 Memorial, I had seen this strategy employed in some parts of the Newseum in Washington DC, an interactive museum of news and journalism which is rich in digital media.

While several digital interactives at the Newseum seemed more about the sponsored technology or marketing objectives than content, features such as the ‘interactive newsroom’ did effectively tap into real-world learning scenarios.

In the interactive news room, for example, visitors can ‘be a reporter’, choosing a video backdrop to read from a TelePromoter in front of, and then see themselves in action. Videos are also posted to Youtube (few visitors have subsequently viewed them online).

photo of the game zone photo of gamification screen
The ‘game zone’ at the Newseum – combining audience’s media experiences with museum content in the form of quiz questions (slightly light on learning, from my perspective). Gamification at the Newseum. Again, content choices seemed less thought out than the wider museum, except ‘Be a Photographer’, which involved taking photographs of an event to select the best one to represent the event in a new story (with feedback given at the end).
Photo of the check-in area Photo of the interactive news room
‘Take your photo in the check-in area’ – a social experience rather than a learning one. The interactive news room, kiosks put visitors in the role of a journalist challenging them to see if they would do what journalists do in specific situations.

Photo of interactive room

Having fun in the Interactive news room.


Jake noted that if you make something wondrous and magical, people – of all ages – will connect with it. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One ‘line and shape’ activity is one example, where visitors draw on the screen and the application pattern-matches to find an image from the collection that follows the same form. This satisfying and embodied interaction is popular with young and old.

The challenge is how to transmit knowledge within these interactive learning experiences. “How,” Jake questioned, “do you make knowledge seep in in a deeper way?”

He mentioned his belief in the importance of persistent feedback and the customization of education to the future of learning. Rather than receive (or give) feedback at the very end of an interactive experience, do so throughout. Experiences should unfold responsively and iteratively as you learn.

 Photo of interpretive text

Interpretive text on educational theory at the New York Public Library’s
‘The ABC of it, why children’s books matter’ exhibition.


My conversation with Jake Barton was just one of many inspirational conversations that helped me to understand the transformation the Cooper-Hewitt galleries are undergoing.

During our train journey down to Washington DC to attend the Teen Design Fair, Seb Chan also shared some of the ideas and values shaping the museum renovation.

One is a holistic (almost ‘service design’) approach to the physical visitor experience that acknowledges visitors bring with them all of the accumulated media experiences and expectations – including digital – of the world beyond the museum.

This philosophy is exemplified by MONA, David Walsh’s controversial Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania (described here by Mia Ridge). Walsh and the MONA team visited and spoke to curatorial staff during early conceptual conversations for the Cooper-Hewitt’s approach to onsite visitor technology.

At MONA, the museum experience starts at the point visitors board the boat to the museum. On arrival in the building, every visitor receives an ‘O’ (an encased iPod touch) to guide them, in a carefully managed entry experience. The O is included in the ticket price.

Controversially (and a step the Cooper-Hewitt won’t be taking), the art works are on display without any interpretation other than what is available on the ‘O’ – digital information that is then made available to the visitor after their visit.

Interpretive text is conversational, authentic and human, reflecting the personality of the collection’s owner. The art is lodged in the present, there for experiencing in the now. Built into the embankment of a river, for example, the building is already eroding.

Photo of girl using smartphone 

Using the O at MONA.


Adapting ideas from other disciplines, such as experimental theatre, has also been important in the Cooper-Hewitt redesign.

In particular, the immersive, exploratory and hands-on storytelling approaches of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (an exposition of the Macbeth story), and the later Then She Fell (an exposition of Alice and Wonderland and the relationship between Lewis Carroll and the much younger Alice Liddell), by Third Rail Projects.

Taking inspiration from the performing arts is not uncommon in exhibition design. During her guest lecture at the Pratt Institute, for example, Fiona Romeo talked about her experience working with ‘Shunt’ – an experimental theatre company – to help create a sense of drama and bring the visitor into a role-play within the exhibition narrative space.

I attended performances of both Sleep No More (in which audience members are free to explore the theatre set as part of the performance, discovering scenes as they go) and Then She Fell (in which audience members are individually guided through interactive performances).

Then She Fell is set at a former outpatient building (including for malaria treatment) of the Greenpoint Hospital in north Brooklyn. This New York Times review is a fairly accurate portrayal, but every visitor brings and takes his or her own experience away from the performance.

photo of outpatient building 

Entering the former outpatient building of the Greenpoint Hospital in north Brooklyn to attend Then She Fell.


From the moment I walked into the building (and before, through email contact), I was carefully brought into the story-world. A woman wearing an old nurse’s uniform greeted me, and guided me up the stairs to the waiting room with the other 14 audience members. I was given wine and a set of keys, and encouraged to explore the various drawers and books and files in the room, and throughout the performance.

Being given the keys to guide audience members ‘over the threshold’ and into the theatre experience is similar to being given the ‘O’ at MONA – or any other piece of mobile visitor technology in a museum that might inspire new ways of engaging with the collections.

Over two hours, Alice-like, I was gently guided with various other audience members through my own particular combination of scenes, played out in individual spaces and rooms in a non-linear fashion. At times interacting with the performers, at times a voyeur, at times an explorer, at times left quietly on my own to reflect on the ideas and recent experiences swirling in my mind.

I loved that the theatre company opened up a space to contain (but not outright tell) a difficult story – of the relationship between the far older Lewis Carroll and the young Alice Liddell – but left no definite conclusions. These were for me to discover on my own, and continue investigating after the show.

For me, Then She Fell was a possible answer to the question of how you make knowledge seep in in a deeper way. It is still very vivid in my mind.

Photo of illustration Photo of a slip of paper
‘she at once took up the little golden key and hurried of to the garden door’ – scene from Alice and Wonderland, displayed at the New York Public Library’s ‘The ABC of it, why children’s books matter’ exhibition. A slip of paper resulting from a participatory scene with an actor in Then She Fell, asking a series of questions to pull down tea from jars to make me a cup of tea.
Photo of reproduction of portrait of Alice Liddell Picture of white rabbit
Reproduction of: Portrait of Alice Liddell as “The Beggar Maid” by Lewis Carroll, hand-colored albumen print, 1858. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg collection of English and American Literature, displayed at the New York Public Library’s ‘The ABC of it, why children’s books matter’ exhibition. “Lewis Carroll purchased his first camera in 1856 and soon became an accomplished amateur portrait photographer. Though he photographed adult subjects, including Lord Tennyson and the Prince of Wales, his strong preference was always for girls.” A white rabbit in a churchyard in Park Slope, Brooklyn.


Then She Fell also brought to mind a story by Peter Hoeg from Tales of the Night, in which a young physicist believes that “every emotion leaves some trace of itself, in people themselves and in the world around them.” In the story, she sets about to reconstruct the past in historic settings.

“Just imagine that every wall might be regarded as a very delicate, light-sensitive film. That one day we would be able to call up every conceivable image that has ever passed over it. Picture the Louvre as an immense laboratory where we could elicit fragments of antique scenes drawn from the Parthenon frieze. Where every archway would still form a resonant cavity oscillating microscopically to the music of a far-off age. And were we can place a gramophone needle against the huge vase depicting Perseus and the Gorgons and perhaps hear the voice of the potter, laid down as a sound track by the way of his fingers, like a laquer disc from the six century BC.”[16]

Part of the attraction of digital and emerging media in museums is the ability to turn these fantastical and magical ideas into real experiences. The following section explores what this might mean in practice at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.


Activate the collection! In-gallery experiences

The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is a museum, housed in a historic Carnegie Mansion, focused on being a laboratory, or teaching tool, for design.

In addition to taking a holistic approach to the integration of digital media throughout the museum visitor experience, the Cooper-Hewitt will provide opportunities for visitors to collect and interact with networked collection objects and interpretive content throughout the galleries.

Many details of the new museum concepts and exhibits were still being worked through during my visit, and these will remain confidential until the Cooper-Hewitt begins communicating about the re-opening.

However, as in the innovative Gallery One, digital learning experiences being developed with Local Projects will be interactive and immersive.

While mobile guides like MONA’s ‘O’ were not envisaged as part of the concept, new experiential approaches to the use of mobile devices in the museum are being tested.

Within the galleries, digital surfaces will enable visitors to interact with virtual design objects and contextual information – using the ‘real’ objects on display to inspire and inform their activity. As previously mentioned, a designated lab will also allow visiting school groups (and other visitors) to go deeper into the design process using interactive technologies.

Some of the in-gallery experiences will deliberately retain the scale of (and verisimilitude to) the physical objects, others will enable visitors to use digital technologies to amplify and re-imagine the properties of design objects in physical spaces.

As on the innovative Collections website, with its experimental features, digital media applications will help visitors to learn about the physical properties and context of collection items – going deeper and wider than a simple ‘look’ or static object label might enable. External collections will also be brought to light.

Some 4000 or so collection objects will be virtually connected to the hundreds of objects on show in the galleries (powered in part by the Cooper-Hewitt online collections API) – and, as with post-visitation experiences at MONA and with MOMA’s Audio+ guide, visitors will have access to any media they collect or create when they leave the museum.

At the heart of this exercise is a desire to communicate the activity of design – not necessarily by teaching or telling it, but by opening curated spaces full of potential for visitors to experience design and discover it for themselves. To inspire visitors not just to reflect upon and absorb information about design or the collections, but to use the museum to inform their own design practice.

Part of the challenge is designing these experiences to be scalable and sustainable – such that the museum can keep fresh for visitors through changing content, rather than investing in short-term technology projects to create something ‘new’.

There is a huge amount of content work to be done with relatively few staff, and in a constrained amount of time and budget. The lack of existing workflows for digital being embedded in the visitor experience is exacerbating this challenge – one that will hopefully diminish after the first ‘release’.

At the time I visited, the curators (in collaboration with educators and digital media specialists) were focused on uncovering potential associations between the items going on show and others in the collection, and grouping them into stories to connect them – which will be supplemented by video media or translated through experiences. Visual storytelling will be key.

Encoding these associations, stories, and cross-references into the collections system, and collaborating with Local Projects and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfo to design and test the digital label displays and interactive experiences, is the work of the Labs team.

At the Cooper-Hewitt, the online collection will be a platform for the entire visitor experience – including onsite. Online and onsite touch-points are being developed in parallel, the one informing the other (and vice versa).

Most significantly, as Seb Chan puts it, “the building will be the biggest user of the collections API”. Every object on display in the museum – even those on loan – will have its own URL on the network; underpinning digital displays and ‘physical’ experiences, not just websites.

The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is physically transforming itself into an online space for reflective thinking, and an environment for experiential learning. The level of integration in this concept is quite remarkable. It is a truly beautiful design (if not a functioning one yet).


Lab of Labs

The Maker movement is a participatory, social culture that invites and inspires all kinds of people and communities to invent, build, and hack. Making and doing with your hands encourages creativity, innovation, and ultimately, design thinking. ~ Urban Trends, a Selection of Ideas from the BMW Guggenheim Lab, 2013

The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Labs is just one of several Labs teams in the cultural institutions of New York City, including the New York Public Library Labs and the Media Lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who I also met with. Ideas are shared and built on across the network.

Photo of Ben Vershbow 

Ben Vershbow, New York Public Library Labs Manager gives me a sneak preview of Building Inspector, a new tool for crowd-sourcing corrections to historic map data. Note 3D glasses for the Stereogranimator in the foreground.


The fact that Don Undeen (@donundeen) wanted to meet away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art says a lot about his outward-focused approach. Don is the Manager of the Media Lab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met Media Lab was set up around three years ago to “explore emerging technologies that could have an impact on the museum experience” and their goal is aligned with the mission of the Met as a whole: to spread appreciation and understanding of their encyclopedic art collection.

Internally, the Lab is a unit staffed by generalists out of disparate groups – and has a particular allegiance with the education department, but also with curatorial staff. They sit within a 70-strong digital media team (a very different scale to the Cooper-Hewitt with under 75 staff across the entire institution).

Photo of Don Undeen

Don Undeen, Manager of the MediaLab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


I had seen the Media Lab’s stand at the Maker Faire in Queens, ‘a weekend festival of creation filled with fun and learning for the whole family’. Attending this event gave me insight into the potential audience of young makers and designers for the refreshed Cooper-Hewitt museum.  As one talk title proclaimed “The Industrial Age is Over: Welcome to the Maker Age”.

photo of signpost Photo of post it notes
Signpost to fun and learning for the whole family. Future makers express their creativity.
Photo of MakerFaire attendees Photo of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s stand at the MakerFaire
Looking down on attendees at the MakerFaire. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s stand at the MakerFaire, displaying a range of 3D-printed artifacts and creations alongside pamphlets for traditional maker programmes. Pez dispensers with Met art object-3D-printed heads. A 3D-printed plastic book, showcasing reliefs, including scans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo of MakerFaire activity sheet Photo of Fred Kah;'s 3D prints of people
Activity sheet on the Met’s MakerFaire stand – showing how 3D technologies are just another expression of creativity to learn about collections. Next door to the Met’s stand: Fred Kahl, ‘The Great Fredini’, billed as a ‘next generation portrait studio for the 21st century’ – printing out 3D portraits of people. The end results were fascinating – like a 3D rendering of a slightly pixelated photograph against a green screen.


At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Media Lab is particularly interested in interfacing with makers in the community rather than running projects on their own. Like the Cooper-Hewitt Labs, it’s a very open and collaborative ethos.

So far the Media Lab has run several 3D events, for example, with the aim of finding out how museum visitors might begin to use 3D technologies. The first, ‘Met-3D’ was billed as a ‘3D scanning and printing hackathon’. It was an invitation-only event, bringing together artists and staff from MakerBot Industries with the Museum’s digital media, education and curatorial staff.

Using technologies visitors might have in their possession, the artists photographed selected objects and converted their photographs into digital 3-D models using freely available software (Autodesk’s 123D Catch). These can be found on the 3D model-sharing website Thingiverse, where others can use and manipulate them. The artists then created new works, printed on MakerBot personal 3-D printers.[17]

This event has since been developed as a teen event, sponsored by 3D Systems: ten teens over 5 days, and plans are underway to have a long term ‘maker in residence’ in the Media Lab. New Zealand organisations could also try this, through partnerships with the local maker community (such as Wellington Makerspace).

Digital fabrication programmes are starting to be popular in the New York museums. Other examples include the well-documented ‘capturing dinosaurs’ programme at the Museum of Natural History (which also had a stand at the MakerFaire).

The Met has always supported people to be creative using the Museum’s collections and copy its works. By copying a work, you can learn more about a work than you might just by passively looking at it. Similarly, educators have for a long time encouraged creativity around collections through various activities.

According to Don, the 3D technologies are just another technique at the museum’s disposal to encourage close looking and learning about art. Not all digital technologies are necessarily going to be a good fit with an institution’s mission or practice. They need to be tested for their potential first.

Don is also interested in establishing an “International Museum 3D Challenge” – whereby museums around the world provide a few scans of objects in their collection, and the public is encouraged to make new works based on them. There is scope for New Zealand museums to contribute to this project.

We also talked about the possibility of collaborative ‘3D hackathon’ exchanges across international boundaries, with learners (or members of a maker community) in a New Zealand museum scanning art or other objects; and New Yorkers printing them out to get creative with (and vice versa) – the results reciprocally going on display on each side of the world. This was just one of a series of wonderful conversations I had during my time in New York.


Concluding thoughts

“The whole web is becoming social and contextual. The network is always ready to hand. It’s device independent.” ~ Paul Reynolds, Living and Learning in the cloud

Photo of Paul Reynolds 

Paul Reynolds, 2010.

In many ways my trip to New York started with this talk by Paul Reynolds in 2010, titled ‘Living and Learning in the Cloud’. Paul gave a version of it in Wellington, as I was considering leaving the National Library and applying to head up the digital media team at Auckland Museum. During the talk, I decided to take the plunge.

Paul’s main question was “where are the online spaces for reflective thinking”? In part, he was referring to critical enquiry – the kind of thinking we use to solve problems, frame inferences, and make decisions towards a desired outcome. Within this process, we reflect on what has happened.

Reflective thinking is brought out by asking why, how, and what specific decisions are made. Collaboration and social interaction is key, as is advice from experts or co-learners. Real-world experiences are important, along with enjoyable, concrete and physical activities.[18]

Image of Experiential Learning cycle graphic

CC BY-SA 3.0 US   The experiential learning cycle, compiled by Andrea Corney


Closely related to reflective thinking, experiential learning is learning through reflection on doing. It is the process of making meaning from direct experience.

I think Paul would have loved the work the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is doing to encourage experiential learning – where the online spaces for reflective thinking are not just on the web, but embedded throughout the entire visitor journey.

Paul passed away unexpectedly, not long after giving his talk – and before I could join him at Auckland Museum, where he was working as a consultant.

I am not an educator, and have not studied educational theory. At Auckland Museum, however, colleagues and I started exploring the use of the MLA’s ‘generic learning outcomes’ (GLO) as a framework for designing and evaluating museum products.

The GLO uses learning in its broadest sense, defining it as a process of “active engagement with experience”:

  1. It is what people do when they want to make sense of the world

  2. It may involve the development or deepening of skills, knowledge, understanding, values, ideas and feelings

  3. Effective learning leads to change, development and the desire to learn more.[19]


I became very interested in the question of how to best integrate digital media in the service of active engagement with collection-based stories, knowledge, and information.

The opportunity to spend three weeks with the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum studying their advanced work shaping digital technologies for learning and creativity around design collections was therefore the trip of a lifetime.

I absorbed an immense amount in this visit, and this report is the result of my learning journey. In some cases, knowledge I had started to develop as we defined the ‘future’ Auckland Museum, but not seen put into practice, was validated. In most cases, I discovered fresh and new ideas and approaches.

I had hoped to pilot a project (potentially collaborative) when I was in the Cooper-Hewitt Labs – but in practice this was unrealistic. Instead, I put this time into reflecting on and documenting what I had learnt.

In part it was unrealistic because being immersed in the Cooper-Hewitt reminded me of the importance of institutional context, collection understanding and a comprehensible user to defining integrated digital concepts. Without these, defining a prototype was difficult.

There are ideas there for the taking, however. For example, I’d love to see the New York-New Zealand collaborative 3D Hackathon happen. I am also keen to design a concept for an experiential storytelling environment.

On reflection, what I came away with was a conceptual tool-kit for embedding digital media in cultural heritage institutions; at both the micro and the macro level – and a stronger sense of my values as a GLAM (Gallery, Library, Archive, and Museum) professional.

While many of the ideas shared in previous sections may not seem to be ‘digital’ learnings, to successfully integrate digital media across the visitor experience requires understanding of more than just technology:

  1. Learning (including institutional learning) takes a lifetime. Short-term and project-based funding models can get in the way of this fact.

  2. Bring multi-disciplinary team members together from the start of the concept and design process, with inspiring leadership and vision

  3. Consider the visitor’s entire journey (including online, in the building, back home)

  4. Know that audiences encounter cultural institutions through the lens of all of their other media experiences – design for their expectations, not against them

  5. Listen to your specific collection (with all its quirks), audience and your institutional context – including your physical environment (if this is relevant to the knowledge you want audiences to uncover) to tune your use of digital media

  6. Be open – including to external influences and collaborators – to achieve your goals

  7. Collections and more importantly, connections at the core – these differentiate museum experiences from others visitors might have

  8. Take inspiration from, and build on, the work of others – adapt to fit your context, but look for your own answers too (innovation is born out of necessity)

  9. Digital is physical. Physical is digital. Develop these ’platforms’ together, and in parallel – and be equipped (i.e. resourced) for the seriousness of this work

  10. At the same time, have fun, play, try things out, be positive and enthusiastic – while gradually moving towards the end goal

  11. Show your work as you go and embrace imperfection, ‘plus it’ to push something further

  12. Attempt to make large scale (or even small-scale) infrastructure investments scalable and sustainable – gear yourself to maintain and iteratively evolve these, not shift focus to another ‘new’ short term project

  13. Don’t under-estimate how much time data/content development will take, and that those less passionate than you about digital will be less motivated to (and more confused about) getting it done

  14. Embrace multi-disciplinary practice for the sake of the audience/user and the positive change across the institution

  15. Unlocking collections through real-world experiences or universal topics and emotions (death, laughter, joy) will cut across all ages – then tailor content choices if you need to

  16. ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’

  17. Use authentic content – for example the voices of the people who know firsthand, the photographs taken by those who were there

  18. Words are everywhere. Unfolding narratives aren’t. Less at first can be more – and visual storytelling is accessible to many.

  19. Success doesn’t rest on a single individual or department

  20. Make people aware you’ve made something digital for them to use – through front of house staff, on signs, in queues. Don’t assume they’ll know about it.


I am very grateful to the National Library of New Zealand and InternetNZ for setting up the scholarship in memory of Paul Reynolds that funded my trip, which is administered by LIANZA on behalf of the GLAM sector (including the National Digital Forum).

I wish to thank the individuals and organisations who shared information so openly with me during my visit, and particularly Seb Chan (and his family) who allowed me to be his shadow, and Aaron Straup Cope for his thought-provoking company. Also, Katie Shelley and Pamela Horn for their insights and quick friendship, and Micah Walter for coming so close to teaching me raspberry pi.

A few notes for future recipients of the award, should this be a New York placement:

  • Air BnB (if it is still running) is a good place to look for affordable accommodation in New York, and you get to feel as if you live there – for better or worse!

  • Try to get accommodation close (preferably walking distance) to the institution you are working in – the commute is exhausting. My options were limited as I decided to go soon after receiving the award.

  • If you have a smartphone, get a temporary sim and data plan (especially for the GPS). This cost around USD $80 for unlimited data from A T & T (or another provider).

  • Metrocards work on buses as well as the subway, and are cheaper if you get one for longer timeframes.

  • If you work in a museum, take your business card or identification – you can get into New York museums free.

  • Book meetings with people you want to talk with as soon as you can – invariably staff will be on leave or work limited office hours etc.

  • Be careful when you book your flights that the airline has left sufficient time for you to make your connection at LA or San Francisco. Mine hadn’t, and I had to be whisked to the plane home under security cover.

  • Expect the unexpected – and go hard while the going is good. Manhattan has some nasty viruses (buy hand sanitizer).

  • New York City is amazing – prepare to feel like you’ll never be able to see everything you want to see, and accept that you will have to come back. I self-funded an extra week to give myself more time.

Finally, I strongly recommend other GLAM professionals apply for this award. While you can learn a lot from reading and conference papers, there is no substitute for being immersed in the environment and organisation you are learning about.

I wish the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum the very best for the work ahead towards re-opening.



[2] Ibid 1

[3] The Hewitt Sisters – Smithsonian Libraries

[5] For more detail on Bill Moggridge’s vision, refer Seb Chan Joins Cooper-Hewitt as Director of Digital and Emerging Media (2011) and Mr Moggridge Has Mad Ambition (2011)

[9] Seb Chan, MuseumNext 2013 opening keynote,

[11] A Raspberry Pi is a small (i.e. business card sized) computer developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi foundation with the intention of promoting the teaching of basic computing science in schools. Refer:

[13]An oft-used phrase of the Labs. See for example:

[16] Peter Hoeg, ‘An Experiment in the Constancy of Love’ from Tales of the night, (London: Harvill, 1997).

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