Have you ever found yourself wracking your brain, trying to remember the name of the artist or a piece of work you saw in a gallery, even a couple of hours after you saw the exhibition? Us too, all the time. However, there is a museum that has adopted a new approach, which challenges the conventional museum visit head on.


High up on Museum Mile lives the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. As a museum dedicated to every aspect of design – thinking, planning, problem-solving and creating – it comes as no surprise that they have cleverly developed a new way for visitors to interact with the formal museum setting.


Photo copyright: Cooper Hewitt Design Museum


On entering the museum, along with your ticket you are given a long black matt pen and a receipt with an individual visit code. The pen has two ends: one end comprises a large stylus for designing and the other, a button with a luminous cross – the NFC reader.


Photo copyright: The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum


On your journey around the museum you are encouraged to interact with everything using your pen – designing everything from wallpaper in the Immersion Room to houses to chairs and tables on large 4K resolution touchscreen tables on each floor – akin to a scene from Iron Man. All the exhibits have captions which also display black crosses, which when you connect your NFC reader to the cross, vibrates and stores the exhibit, along with all of your designs, in an online portal, accessible through the internet with your unique visitor code. The pen carries more weight than the typical museum app and travels well beyond the museum’s physical boundaries. Aside from the technical aspects, the pen is a uniquely designed, site-specific work of art in itself – a conductor of creativity.


One we made earlier…


We spoke to Micah Walter, Director of Digital and Emerging Media at Cooper Hewitt for more information.


AZ: What is the main difference between the NFC reader and a standard museum app?

MW: So the NFC reader isn’t on a screen, which makes a big difference. It’s tactile and you hold it from the minute you get your admission. It’s a hands-on experience – every viewer is given permission to play within the museum walls. Also, I think one significant difference is that the NFC reader is not like an app – you have to understand why you need to download the app, whereas you are directly given the pen to play with.


AZ: How do you think the pen has changed the way the public interact with the museum?

MW: Well I think there are two main points – the first we touched on before in terms of the interactive and playful element, but it also gives visitors the benefit of recall, where you can actually save a moment in time. We sometimes refer to the device as ‘an elaborate bookmark’ – you can always remember and recall that you were here.


The amazing thing about the personal collections you save is that they are stored online forever – you can access them whenever you want. There is a lot of time spent by the public saving notes in their phone or book where they are missing out on physically being in the museum – and then the notes don’t really make sense when you get home.


AZ: To your knowledge is there anything similar in any other museums?

MW: There are a few similar things across the world – we took inspiration from the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Australia. [They have an iPod style gadget that tracks individual movements and collects works you’re standing next to around the gallery and then emails it back to you after your visit.]


A lot of galleries have beacon points accessed through an app or online. We have bigger ideas for the pen that we would like to incorporate into the wider Smithsonian in Washington.


AZ: What kind of feedback have you had?

MW: It has all been very positive. I mean it’s easy to measure the success by looking at the data from the pens. For example, I can see that 40% of our visitors follow up on their personal collections from the museum visit after leaving. And on our public stats page online you can see that in total so far over 4 million items have been ‘collected’ which averages around 40 items per visitor.