Future Tense

The Museum and the Stylus

How the Cooper Hewitt used a much-maligned technology to draw in younger visitors.

One of Cooper Hewitt’s styluses in action.
One of Cooper Hewitt’s styluses in action.
Animation by Slate. Photo by Cooper Hewitt Museum.

This article is part of Update or Die, a series from Future Tense about how businesses and other organizations keep up with technological change—and the cost of falling behind.

In 2011, the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum housed in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion in New York City, announced it was closing for a face-lift. Banners on the museum’s gates pronounced, “Like many on Fifth Avenue, I’m having a little work done.”

“A little” was something of an understatement, given that the closure lasted three years. Furthermore, these changes wouldn’t be purely cosmetic. Inside the Georgian Revival structure, a team had begun sketching out ideas for all sorts of wearable devices to make the museum interactive. It was like a scene from a Bond film, if Agent 007’s mission was making civilians appreciate a Wedgwood vase. They played with the idea of smart rings and slap bracelets until they ultimately settled on an unexpected choice. The stylus has largely disappeared since touch screens came about, and Steve Jobs pronounced it a sign of failure, but it turns out to be the perfect technology to revolutionize the museumgoing experience.

Museums seem to have accepted that they need some degree of technological integration. Even the Frick Collection—notoriously the crotchety Luddites of the art world—now have an app. The approaches vary widely from museum to museum, including Imax theaters, SMS chatbots, and an interactive staircase–cum–installation piece at the Mint Museum in North Carolina. Sometimes, the technology can seem like it’s aiming for the wow factor rather than real efficacy. But the Cooper Hewitt wanted to avoid that by building technology into its core mission. “It’s very much a relationship between the physical and the digital. It isn’t an add-on,” Carolyn Royston, chief experience officer at the Cooper Hewitt, said. “Here at the Cooper Hewitt, digital has been seen as [just] as important as the rest of the things in the galleries.”

The Cooper Hewitt has what it calls a “heads up” approach, a stance intended to dissuade visitors from burying their faces in screens. When a visitor buys a ticket, she’s given a stylus and a unique URL. The pen can scan object labels throughout the museum, which are then uploaded to the visitor’s personal collection on the Cooper Hewitt’s website. Throughout the museum, there are communal tables covered in touch screens where visitors can pull up their collections, look up additional information, or sketch designs. In building these tables, the museum was hoping to promote socializing and a little healthy voyeurism in the form of peeking over at someone else’s drawing.

Cooper Hewitt’s interactive tables let visitors mingle with one another and with the exhibits.
Cooper Hewitt’s interactive tables let visitors mingle with one another and with the exhibits.
Cooper Hewitt Museum

When the Cooper Hewitt reopened in 2014, the marketing team specifically positioned the museum as a place for the young and tech savvy. It launched a campaign with posters throughout the city; one read, “The most cutting-edge art gallery in Chelsea is not an art gallery and is not in Chelsea.” This approach seems to have worked: The museum claims that the average age of visitors dropped from 57 in 2011 to 27 in 2014, which is significant given that most museumgoers fall in the 45–54 range. Perhaps more importantly, the Cooper Hewitt’s visitors have been using their technology. Royston said that 96 percent of visitors accept the pens, and about 30 percent return to the museum’s site after their visit using the unique URL they are issued upon arrival.

What makes the Cooper Hewitt unique is not the tech itself, but its integration into the overall experience. In the museum world at large, the prevailing theme has been a more scattershot response to mobile dominance. The amount of phone usage in museums has increased dramatically, resulting in occasional catastrophes. Some museums have tried to curb phone usage, while others try to simply redirect people’s attention. In 2015, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam initiated a #StartDrawing campaign, handing out free pencils and paper to encourage visitors to sketch the work instead of taking photos. Other museums, particularly pop-ups, have no qualms with photos—sometimes, in fact, they seem more like Instagram photo sets than cultural institutions. The Museum of Ice Cream, which first opened in New York City in 2016, sold 300,000 tickets within the first five days of opening.

Most museums looking for the Goldilocks approach—they want some tech, but aren’t willing to bring in enormous gummy bears as backdrops for photos—have dedicated their digital resources toward apps. These apps serve primarily to wayfind, offer additional contextual information, or tie in to social media. However, they are essentially building digital scaffolding on top of existing infrastructure. Cuseum, a Boston-based tech company, has created apps for many midsize museums across the country, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. Cuseum was one of the early companies experimenting with Beacon technology—a system originally developed for retail that uses Bluetooth technology to track visitors as they move through a building. The system can then trigger push notifications that help you navigate the museum, or even offer information on pieces within your immediate vicinity. However, these functions simply digitize information that was already available.

The real reason to implement that kind of app seems more connected to the museums’ retail and dining options, as the Bluetooth technology can also be used to notify visitors of special promotions in the store or café. As visitors near the exit, they might be prompted with the option of becoming a member.

Part of the challenge of technological integration is that the digital department is generally separate from curation, education, and visitor services. But at the Cooper Hewitt, all the departments collaborate on the museum’s digital effort. The museum is unique in that it has its own application-programming interface, a system that makes the museum’s internal records easily accessible by in-house developers. This isn’t a sexy selling point for the public, but Pamela Horn, director of cross-platform publishing and strategic partnerships at the Cooper Hewitt, explained that when she goes to museum conferences, the API is what makes all her peers jealous. The Cooper Hewitt’s interface allows developers to create new programs that help visitors search and explore the collection in creative ways. Horn said that getting everyone on the same interface was not easy—it took a lot of buy-in from the curators to change their workflow so that the museum staff and visitors were drawing information from the same place. Now, new objects are added to the collection earlier and are identified in such a way that there is relatable information for everyone from the director of the museum to an 8-year-old visitor.

The fact that all the object data is so easy to utilize has led to a lot of prototyping and experimenting with new projects. The museum currently has an exhibition called The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, for which they designed Braille ID numbers that visually impaired visitors can input into a custom app, which then delivers the object’s text for screen reading or audio. For Saturated, another current exhibition, the museum made their full collection of 210,000 objects searchable by RGB hex values or Crayola colors, allowing visitors to search for objects by hue.

That’s a great example of the approach museums should take: making tech part of the experience. Though there is certainly a set of people who question the younger generations’ ability to appreciate in-person experiences, the Cooper Hewitt is proving that museums don’t need Instagram bait or an entirely digital experience to attract a younger audience. Rather, it demonstrates that all it takes is an intuitive and compelling technological approach that highlights a collection of objects whose cultural importance has already stood the test of time.