Museum Review: The Cooper Hewitt

by Gabriela Godlewski (CE ’19)

Photo by Gabriela Godlewski (CE ‘19).
Photo by Gabriela Godlewski (CE ‘19).

Peter Cooper was known as a philanthropist for his dedication to the advancement of science and art in our society, a goal immortalized in our institution. What few people know is that his goal remains alive outside of our school in a beautiful museum tucked away in the Upper East Side: the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. The Cooper-Hewitt is a unique museum dedicated entirely to design and its implementations in both modern and historic contexts.

The Cooper-Hewitt Museum was founded in 1897 by Peter Cooper’s three granddaughters, Amy, Eleanor, and Sarah Cooper-Hewitt. It was originally an extension of the Cooper Union located in the fourth floor of the Foundation Building. In 1967, the Smithsonian Institution absorbed it as the design branch in their extensive museum network. Shortly after in 1970, the museum and its exhibitions were moved into the Andrew Carnegie mansion on 91st and 5th overlooking Central Park where it remains open to the public to this day.

The museum is open every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Since it was once a part of the Cooper Union, the Cooper-Hewitt offered free admission to students. However, when the Cooper Union began charging half-tuition, the Cooper-Hewitt also began charging for student admission. Don’t let that deter you from visiting, though. Just flash your Cooper ID at the ticket booth and you get access to all the incredible exhibits for $9.

Traveling from our natural habitats in the casual East Village to the more upscale Upper East Side compliments a museum outing perfectly. Breathing in the fresh air from Central Park, I arrived at the Cooper-Hewitt and bought my ticket. With my ticket, they gave me a large stylus: one end worked as a pen for drawing on tablets spread throughout the museum and the other end saved favorite exhibits to a personal library accessible online. This stylus and library were integrated in the museum experience to make the exhibits more interactive, further distinguishing the Cooper-Hewitt from other museums.

The Cooper-Hewitt houses many interesting exhibitions but a few were particularly notable. The first exhibit I saw, entitled “Scraps: Fashion, Textiles, and Creative Reuse,” showed the work of three designers who were inspired by sustainability to use discarded PVC and fabric scraps to make clothing and accessories. Other exhibitions include treasures from the Hewitt sisters’ personal collections, a room full of mirrors and shoes painted silver, notable examples of interior design pieces throughout the 20th century, and a collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany glassware. There is also the famous Immersion Room, which has become very popular on social media. The room features two interactive walls that visitors can design by drawing on the tablet in the middle of the room. The result is the drawing projected onto the walls, making for a great design lesson and photo op.

Notably, the third floor is entirely dedicated to exhibiting the design process as it integrates in our daily life. The exhibit, “By the People: Designing a Better America,” presents ingenious inventions made by average people and architecture plans for sustainable homes. It not only highlights the social and economic inequality that exists in our society, but also demonstrates how thinkers, when presented with a problem, can design a solution through architecture and engineering.

A personal favorite was the Process Lab, a room that guided the viewer step-by-step through the design process. First we were asked to choose a sticker stating a theme we were interested in, such as family, technology, or resilience. Then we were asked to find a problem relating to our central theme. After sifting through inspiration cards we were asked to design a possible solution to our problem that would address the theme and then submit the final design to be a part of the exhibit. People of all ages were discovering the same type of design process that everyone attending the Cooper Union learns and implements in their projects.

I strongly recommend taking at least a few hours off from studies or projects to go to see what the Cooper-Hewitt has to offer. What I love most about this museum—especially in the eyes of a Cooper student—is that there are exhibitions that anyone in our school can enjoy. The inventions featured on the third floor are perfect for an engineer and budding entrepreneur. Architects can enjoy and draw inspiration from the various plans and models on display. Everything featured in the museum is a work of art that artists and everyone else can enjoy. The Cooper Hewitt is a testament to Peter Cooper’s legacy that can and should be appreciated. ◊

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