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From Tiny Stairs to Taxidermy Earrings, 200,000 Objects from Cooper Hewitt Go Online

Whitehead & Hoag Company, "Cawston Ostrich Farm, South Pasadena, California" (ca. 1900)
Whitehead & Hoag Company, “Cawston Ostrich Farm, South Pasadena, California” (c. 1900) (all images via Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

Home to drawings, textiles, jewelry, furniture, and thousands of other design objects, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is taking increased advantage of the internet’s digital real estate. The museum recently completed a massive digitization project that places almost its entire collection online; nearly 200,000 objects are now accessible and searchable, allowing online visitors to see just how rich its holdings are. Many of these works currently reside in the institution’s storage facility, so the project is a means of placing them in the public eye on a platform that also offers background information on each one.

Hector Guimard, 'Design for a Tombstone" (c. 1900)
Hector Guimard, ‘Design for a Tombstone” (c. 1900) (click to enlarge)

Of any museum, Cooper Hewitt is one you’d expect to really deliver on web design, and true to form, its new website is smart and engaging. What makes it particularly fun is the array of browsing options. Besides the expected links that allow you to search by country, period, department, and medium, you can also search by very specific colors — from sienna to dark slate gray — and by very specific tags — from “playful” to “propaganda.” A personal favorite is the particularly creative “personal environmental control,” which leads to a series of ornate fans, a radiator, and even a mid-19th-century Japanese sweat protector. The platform also features some clever sorting options, allowing you to organize objects by descriptors such as year acquired and even width, if, for some reason, you’re hunting for particularly narrow objects. And it’s all too easy to get lost in design history, as every object’s individual page is heavily linked, introducing many paths to more related objects. The digitization team was even thorough with the objects’ histories while at the institution: accompanying each piece is a timeline — illustrated with emoji — that relays when the museum acquired it, the dates it was photographed, when it may have been exhibited.

Cooper Hewitt completed the project in an impressive 18 months, thanks to the help of the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program office. At its peak, the project had four photographic setups operating simultaneously, each meant to handle objects of certain sizes, from small buttons to hulking furniture, according to a press release. On average, the team digitized 600 objects a day, uploading them to the website in as few as 48 hours. According to Director Caroline Baumann, the accomplishment in such a short time is “an unprecedented achievement in the museum world.” So have at it, and immerse yourself in extravagant birdcages, mesmerizing staircase models, and much more.

Etui with writing and grooming instruments (1770–80)
Etui with writing and grooming instruments (1770–80)
French firescreen (1825–40)
French firescreen (1825–40)
Late 19th century earrings with real hummingbird heads
Late-19th-century earrings with real hummingbird heads
Louis-Jean Desprez, "Sepulcher in Egyptian Style with Death Carrying a Lamp" (1779–84)
Louis-Jean Desprez, “Sepulcher in Egyptian Style with Death Carrying a Lamp” (1779–84)
English mourning sampler (ca. 1810)
English mourning sampler (c. 1810)
Print by Cornelis Floris II from a series of designs for ewers and vessels (1548) (all images via Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)
Print by Cornelis Floris II from a series of designs for ewers and vessels (1548)
Christoph Jamnitzer, "Print, Plate 6, from Neüw Grotteßken Buch (New Grotesque Book)" (1610)
Christoph Jamnitzer, “Print, Plate 6, from Neüw Grotteßken Buch (New Grotesque Book)” (1610)
Mid-19th century church birdcage
Mid-19th-century church birdcage
"Rialto Bridge Birdcage" (late 19th–early 20th c.)
“Rialto Bridge Birdcage” (late 19th–early 20th century)
Japanese sweat protector (koyori Ase-hajiki) (1850–60)
Japanese sweat protector (koyori Ase-hajiki) (1850–60)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, bound print of an Etruscan chimneypiece from 'Diverse Maniere d'adornare i cammini' (1769)
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, bound print of an Etruscan chimneypiece from ‘Diverse Maniere d’adornare i cammini’ (1769)

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