Our Preview of a New Cooper Hewitt Initiative: Make It Tangible

One of our favorite museums in New York is the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The museum is housed in the early twentieth-century Carnegie Mansion on the Upper East Side, where magnate Andrew Carnegie lived with his wife, Louise Whitfield Carnegie, and their daughter, Margaret. Cooper Hewitt strives to “educate, inspire, and empower people through design,” and they challenge their patrons to engage in design thinking and encourage dialogue surrounding design. Starting February 28, the museum will begin offering two Visual Description tours per week, which will include touch. I encourage any design lovers in New York to engage in these tours.

 The Bone Armchair (2007).

The Bone Armchair (2007).

Your intrepid Customer Connector is quite fond of the Cooper Hewitt Museum, and was able to preview the touch tour. I spoke to Kim Robledo-Diga, the Deputy Director of Education & Interpretation about the need for more accessible programming and what the future of museum exhibitions could look like.

Eighteen months ago, Cooper Hewitt began to make a concerted effort to make the museum more accessible. Traditionally, touching the objects is strictly forbidden, even for museum professionals. Cooper Hewitt flipped this idea on its head and will encourage visitors to touch the objects on display beginning February 28. For differently-abled communities their experience of the work centers on touching the objects and can enhance the experience for any museum goer.

Robledo-Diga reinforced this idea, saying, “Touch tours seem to point to the blind and low vision community, but we know it would benefit visitors on the autism spectrum and just about any design lover.” The recent exhibit Joris Laarman Lab: Design in the Digital Age, offered an exciting opportunity to put this plan into operation.

Much of Joris Laarman’s work is 3D-printed or created using experimental and innovative design processes. The opportunity to touch his work opens up new levels of understanding. Robledo-Diga explained, “There is something about being able to touch something that is typically untouchable. The visitor can now understand the temperature, texture, and form the object so much better even if they are sighted. There is an intimacy that touch offers that is unique.”

For me it was wonderful to feel the curious seams of the Diamond Chair and the cold smoothness of the Adaptation Chair in addition to learning how Joris Laarman lab used 3D printing to create puzzle pieces that can be made into the innovative Downloadable Puzzle Chair.

The making of the Adaptation Chair. Uploaded by Joris Laarman Lab on 2017-09-11.

On my tour, the group had the opportunity to touch the works at the same time and share our experiences. “We found that touch tours created a mini community in the tour, “ said Robledo-Diga. “The tour format changed from the ‘group stepped back from an object and only participating in a conversation with the educator/docent’ to 2-4 people touching at once and sharing their own touch experience with the group.” As institutions make efforts to expand their offerings, I expect we may see touch tours become an integral part of the museum-going experience.