A view of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum lobby (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

When I wrote about my visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, I sought to relate what that museum means in terms of its place in our culture. I wrote about how it conveys a story of triumph despite overwhelming odds — which is the sort of story that seems to appeal to the general public.

As someone who has extensively studied museums in an academic context, I decided to embark on a kind of case study, asking one central question of some of this city’s most well-known art museums: What does this museum add to the culture of the city? Another way of asking this is: What is special about this particular museum? I want to ask this because I live in a city that has more than 100 museums, some of which, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have existed since the 19th century, and others, such as New Museum, were formed only 40 years ago.

The other end of the Cooper Hewitt’s great hall

I decided to visit the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum first, because it somehow feels both antiquated and technologically advanced. I wonder how it could be both simultaneously. The museum is housed in the former home of businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The 64-room Georgian Revival mansion, built from 1899 to 1902, was designed by the architectural firm of Babb, Cook & Willard, and has a large private garden attached. According to the museum’s website, the house was planned to be used as a place where Carnegie, after his retirement, could manage his philanthropic projects.

Inside the Process Lab

The building now sits on the well-known museum mile, and has that Upper East Side feel of dynastically preserved wealth, redolent in almost every aspect of the building: the nest of serenely white plaster archways at the entrance; the great hall’s majestically high ceilings consisting of coffered, carved oak; the decorative plaster ceiling with raised strapwork design on the second floor; the intricate teak, parquet flooring; oak woodwork paneling; the carved wood railings of the grand staircase; and the stained glass tympanum and roundels over the entrance to the main floor’s reception room. The immediate impressions I have in the first five minutes I spend in the museum is of old world splendor, of inherited wealth, but also of meticulous care for the building and its contents. I imagine an array of specific cleaning and repair tools concealed in a room back of house, and a cadre of cleaners and restorers that have been sensitively trained to use them.

Installation view of The World of Radio (photo by Matt Flynn, © 2017 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

Installation view of Models & Prototypes Gallery (photo by Matt Flynn, © 2014 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

The Cooper Hewitt does a unique and contradictory thing with its displays. On the one hand, it presents design — that is, the creative and carefully planned fashioning of functional objects that seeks to make them aesthetically distinctive — as a crucial component of everyday life. On the other, it places antiquated objects in large vitrines as if to say that they have now passed out of everyday use and should be revered as art objects. These oppositional notions are resolved precisely by the subtle role the museum assumes as the arbiter of that transition from a useful tool to precious object. The Cooper Hewitt in essence decides whether a utilitarian object deserves to be preserved and included in its collection, which dates back 30 centuries and continues to accrue objects. Its Georgian Revival architecture seems to freeze the institution in time, and visually conveys to audiences that it exists outside of the current post-industrial, heavily digitized moment.

The “Open House” design by Matthew Mazzotta in By the People exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt

Yet, this persona founded partly on the museum’s wealthy provenance, and its affiliation with what is reportedly the world’s largest museum and research complex, present certain difficulties — the most obvious being how to appeal to contemporary audiences interested in technologically innovative design and new means of museum display. The Cooper Hewitt has largely solved this dilemma through a combination of clever exhibition choices and its new interactive technologies. Many of these were implemented during its $91 million, three-year renovation completed in 2014. For instance, visitors can now explore the digitized collection with 4K resolution touchscreen tables, or draw their own wallpaper designs in an Immersion Room. The Process Lab invites you to work on solving real-world design problems, such as creating new forms of efficient, eco-friendly transportation, and the famous Pen, a digital device conceived by Local Projects working with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, allows you to electronically “collect” objects from around the galleries and save them in an online portfolio you can retrieve online when you return home.

The “Culticycle Prototype” by Tim Cooke and his collaborators in By the People

The museum’s exhibition programming also strives to be relevant to contemporary audiences. Earlier this year, By the People: Designing a Better America showcased contemporary, imaginative designs created to solve current problems, including a house that can be reconfigured into an outdoor theater, and buses transformed into mobile, fresh produce markets. Last year, Making Design displayed functional objects redesigned to serve aesthetic purposes, and seemingly decorative objects that had practical utility. It’s clear Cooper Hewitt is determined to develop an audience that appreciates the relevance of design to daily life. To couch this lesson in a populist language, the museum also has an ongoing Selects series begun in 2007 in which celebrities and well-known professionals talk about the design objects they personally own. This series has featured Ellen DeGeneres, David Adjaye, Thom Browne, and Maira Kalman.

The “Fresh Moves Mobile Market” exhibit designed by Growing Power, Hammersley Architecture, Architecture for Humanity Chicago, Engaging Philanthropy Inspiring Creatives (EPIC) and Latent Design and created by Tyrue Jones and fabricated by WM Display Group and collaborator City of Chicago and made for (as the client) Food Desert Action, in By the People

But the museum also does something else with its dynastic wealth: it launders it, making it palatable for a public that may be unaware of the origins of Carnegie’s fortune. Carnegie was an entrepreneurial savant who managed and revolutionized the steel industry — even using the extraction of raw materials to build his own home, the first in the nation to have a steel structure. However, he was also a brutal manager who had his steel workers laboring 12-hour shifts, seven days per week, and with one holiday per year, the fourth of July. He once lowered wages by 30 percent, thus provoking the Homestead Strike, and had his workers in such dangerous conditions that 2o percent of deaths among men in Pittsburgh during the 1880s were due to steelwork accidents. This museum hides that terrible history, allowing the image of Carnegie as a generous public patron to flourish even as the Cooper Hewitt museum flourishes. Unfortunately, this is very much typical of the story and treatment of inherited wealth in the United States: it is appropriated at severe cost to those whose own stories are often ignored, and that capital is converted into patrimony for a grateful public.

Installation view of The World of Radio (photo by Matt Flynn, © 2017 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

Still, the Cooper Hewitt reminds us that what we invent and use today could constitute an aspect of the vast story of American culture’s development. The museum gives visitors a kind of contemplative oasis in which to see how design is not merely confined to fanciful constructions or items in a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. At the same time, like several other great art institutions in the city (the Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim come to mind) the Cooper Hewitt transmutes questionable inherited wealth into public patrimony. And this is a very New York story, one of palpable contrasts in this city of skyscrapers and gutters. The Cooper Hewitt is seated in the robber baron’s great palatial mansion, preserving the antiquated object while trying to anticipate our future needs.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (2 East 91 Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) is open weekdays and Sundays, 10am–6pm and Saturdays, 10am–9pm.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...