Author Archives: Seb Chan

About Seb Chan

Seb Chan was the inaugural Director of Digital & Emerging Media (2011-2015) and the founder of the Labs. He likes imaginary creatures and overly sweet beverages. You may already have met him and you can find him on the other side of the world at Fresh & New.

Dataclimber explores colors in the Cooper Hewitt collection

Rubén Abad's #museumselfie outside of a museum

Rubén Abad’s #museumselfie outside of a museum

A few weeks ago we became aware of Rubén Abad’s poster which shows all the colours in our collection by decade. We sent a few questions over to Spain to find out more . . .

Q: What were some of the precursors to the color poster? What inspired you?

A: The idea came when I first saw Lev Manovich’s ‘Software Takes Command‘ book cover. When I started looking at the data, another couple of paintings came to my mind. For example, Salvador Dalí’s series about visual perception and ‘pixels’, as in Homage to Rothko (The Dalí Museum). By chance, I attended an exhibition here in Madrid where I discovered ‘Study for Index: Map of the World‘, by Art & Language (MACBA). By the time I came back home, it was clear that I wanted to display color evolution over time using a mosaic.

Q: Did you have any expectation about what the final product would look like? Did the end result surprise you?

A: I didn’t have any preconceived notion. I liked to see how groups of pieces appeared.

Q: What were the challenges of working with the dataset? What were the holes, problems? How could we make it better/easier to work with?

A: Being used to work with data made really easy for me to work with the collection’s dataset, so thanks for releasing it! The only complain I might have is having to parse some fields, like medium, to be able to store the information in a more comfortable format to be queried.

Q: What would you like to do next?

A: I have a network of people and objects in mind, in order to display who has the biggest ‘influence’ in the collection.

Q: If other museums made their data available like this, what might you do with it?

A: I’d like to work on a history of the object project. If we were able to access all the dates and places importants in the object history, we could try to cross all the objects info and maybe, it’s never known, find new hubs where pieces happened to be at the same time and why they were there. Another interesting project would be to find gender inequality among collections, not only when looking at artists/designers, but also with donors and funders and even among representations (iconography). Have this roles changed over the years? Are different depending on countries?

Dataclimber's color poster.

Dataclimber’s color poster.

Pandas, Press, Planetary

It has been a few crazy days since we announced the addition of iPad App, Planetary, to the museum’s collection.

If you haven’t yet read the long essay about what we’ve done, then it is squirrelled away on the Museum’s Object of the Day blog. The short version is that it is the first time that the museum has acquired code, and that code has also been open sourced as a part of the preservation strategy.

Here’s some of the press it has generated so far. We’ll spare you the hundreds of tweets!

Smithsonian Magazine – “How Does a Museum Collect an iPad app for its Collections?

The Verge – “Hello art world: Smithsonian acquires first piece of code for design collection

Blouin ArtInfo – “The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum Redefines Design by Acquiring Its First Code

Slate – “How Does a Design Museum Add Software to Its Collection? There’s an App for That.

cNet – “Bragging rights for iPad app: First code in Smithsonian design museum

Gizmodo – “The Smithsonian Just Added a Chunk of Code to Its Permanent Collection

Tech Crunch – “Cooper-Hewitt Adds The First Piece Of Code To Its Design Collection

AllThingsD – “Your iTunes Collection, Displayed as a Solar System

TUAW – “Smithsonian adds iPad app code to its collection

MemeBurn – “Smithsonian acquires first piece of code for design collection

LA Times – “Planetary, an iPad app, enters collection of Cooper-Hewitt museum

Hyperallergic – “The First Code Acquired by Smithsonian’s Design Museum is Released to the World

Future Insights – “Intergalactic Planetary: Tell us what you think

We’re really happy – not least of all because we can confirm that like the Internet, the press also really love pandas.

And also Fast Company – “To Preserve Digital Design, The Smithsonian Begins Collecting Apps

And another award!

MUSE award-1024

This time we picked up a Gold award from the American Association of Museum’s Media and Technology MUSE awards. We won in the ‘APIs and applications’ category against some stiff competition from some very polished tablet and mobile apps. The category rewards “digital presentations, applications, and mashups that utilize existing data and online resources to transform content into new meaningful tools or experiences.”

Once again it is nice to see recognition, this time from the broader museum sector, for the value of ‘public alpha’ releases.

We won an award


The annual international gathering that is Museums and the Web has just passed and this year we were lucky enough to win one of the Best of the Web Awards in the Research/Collections category.

We are especially proud of this award because it represents critical evaluation by our peers. And we love that they called out its tone, experimental nature, and its early alpha release. These are exactly the qualities that we believe offer the most to others in the field – something that shiny, polished, and ‘finished’ projects often don’t. What we are doing can (and perhaps, should) be copied by others.

We dedicate the award to Bill Moggridge and we’d like to particularly thank the generosity of curatorial and registration staff in letting us experiment to try re-inventing the collections online paradigm – a task that is far from over.

Congratulations to all the other winners – it is nice to be in such great company!

Exploring quickly made 3D models of the mansion

Restoring the Carnegie Mansion which provides the shell in which Cooper-Hewitt resides, gives a fantastic opportunity to test some 3D scanning. So in the latter part of 2012 we started exploring some of the options.

One local startup,, came to do a test scan of our freshly restored National Design Library. In just 15 minutes their Matterport camera had scanned the room and their servers were generating a navigable 3D model. This is much more than a 360 panorama, it is a proper 3D model, and one that could, with more clean up be used for exhibition design purposes as much as general playfulness.


We’re pretty excited to see what is becoming possible with quick scanning. Whilst these models aren’t high enough resolution right now, the trade off between speed and quality is becoming less and less every year.

We’re sharing this, too, because of the way the unmasked mirror in the scan has created a ‘room that isn’t there’. It would be a good place to hide treasure if the 3D model ever ended up in a game engine.

Go have an explore.

'Discordances' – or the big to-do list

Yesterday Aaron rolled out a minor data update to the online collection. Along with this he also whipped up a ‘anti-concordances’ view for our people/company records. (Yes, for various reasons why are conflating people and companies/organisations). This allows us to show all the records we have that don’t have exact matches in Wikipedia (and other sources).

Along with revealing that we don’t yet have a good automated way of getting a ‘best guess’ of matches (Marimekko Oy is the same as Marimekko) without also getting matches for Canadian hockey players who happen to share a name with a designer, the list of ‘discordances’ is a good, finite problem that can be solved with more human eyes.

People | Wikipedia | Collection of Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

We are currently inviting people (you, for instance) to parse the list of non-matches and then tell us which ones should link to existing but differently-spelled Wikipedia pages, and which ones need to be created as new stubs in Wikipedia itself.

If you’re feeling really bold you could even start those stubs yourself! You can even use our easy-to-insert Wikipedia citation snippet to reference anything in our collection from your newly created articles. You’ll find the snippet tool at the bottom of each object and person/company record.

Being 'Of The Web': now with Behance, Lanyrd &

Last week we talked about our philosophy of being ‘of the web‘, rather than just having the museum ‘on the web’.

And so onto our latest partnerships, our stepping stones to make this a reality.


We’ve worked with Behance, to deepen the exposure of the National Design Award winners through the creation of a branded gallery on their platform.

Rather than the museum making (another) microsite, Behance offers us a way to put the award winners into one of the largest professional social networks used by designers themselves. You can now browse projects by the winners, finalists and jurors – all within their platform.

Behance brings huge exposure to the winners, and the awards, and we’re expecting that many more people find out about the awards than would ever have made it to our own site.


And we’ve partnered with event calendaring Lanyrd to highlight design events across America this month. Lanyrd offers a branded site for National Design Week, and, at the backend, has allowed us, in the words of Aaron Cope, ‘to get out of the calendaring business’ (which museums shouldn’t ever be part of!). Aaron’s also been able to whip up a nice little mobile web app – helped by the normalisation of the data feed provided by Lanyrd. (App post soon!)

You already know we are one of the larger contributors to Google Art Project, and now we’ve also contributed to another pan-institutional project, I’m excited by this because it challenges’s ‘art genome‘ tools to deal with a design collection. And also because the site itself very publicly reveals the porous boundaries between the art market and the art museum.

Read the New York Times piece on which quite nicely demonstrates the subtle rift between the old (on the web) and new (of the web) worlds.

And . . .

And finally, you might notice that if you happen put the URL of one of our collection objects in a tweet, you get a nice little ‘expanded’ bit of information, complete with object thumbnail and @cooperhewitt attribution! That was Aaron’s Friday afternoon treat. Next stop is a custom short URL to make that whole process a bit nicer on the eyes. Cool, huh?

Sealing a Facebook App in amber

One of the more painful things that happens from time to time is the decommissioning of a digital product. And in a museum this, of course, means trying to ‘preserve’ it.

But how do you ‘preserve a Facebook App’ built for an exhibition?

Cooper-Hewitt’s record breaking Set In Style exhibition of 2011 included the creation of both an iOS App and a Facebook App. The Set In Style Facebook App allowed users to add jewellery from the exhibition to their Facebook photos and share them on their wall and the walls of their friends.

A couple of months ago Facebook changed their security settings for Apps (again) and we were faced with a decision – turn it off, or pay to have the code rewritten to support the security changes. With the exhibition ended we opted to close the App down, but before we did so we decided to make a quick video of it in operation with a ‘real Facebook account’ so that the ‘social side’ of the App could be captured in a way that still screen grabs would not.

Here’s the video.

Some questions still remain.

Where does the ‘record’ for this ‘object’ now live? What ‘metadata’ needs to be associated with the ‘record’? What happens to the source code? Should it be released? If it was released, is the App so heavily reliant upon the infrastructure and sociality of Facebook itself that it would be useless?

(Our newest member of the Lab’s ‘Armory of Nerds’, Aaron Cope, has been thinking about these very same issues in regard to ‘preserving Flickr’ with his project Parallel-Flickr)

We’re interested in these sorts of questions at a meta-institutional level too, as, being ‘the National Design Museum’ we are inevitably going to have to be collecting ‘objects’ that face similar issues soon enough. Indeed, should a design museum be ‘collecting’ the designs of Facebook itself over the years? And how?