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Museums and the Web Conference Recap: Administrative Tools at Cooper Hewitt

The Labs team had a great time at Museums and the Web this year. We published two papers for the conference and presented them both to the audience of cultural heritage thinkers, makers, planners and administrators. Sam Brenner and I shared our paper, “Winning (and losing) hearts and minds of museum staff: Administrative interfaces at Cooper Hewitt,” which outlines the process of designing, developing and iterating two in-house built, staff-facing tools: Tagatron and the Pen Pairing Station. Both administrative tools are essential aides to staff managing new responsibilities associated with visitor-facing gallery technologies.

Here is the deck from our presentation:

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Administrative interfaces at Cooper Hewitt


  • Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. New York, New York.
  • Our strategy around presenting design is to expose process—how things are made, how they are conceived, how they are designed.
  • This presentation will speak to our philosophy of openness around design process in sharing part of the back-story of how our current visitor-facing experience came together and how it’s maintained.

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Visitor Interfaces

  • The visitor-facing technologies in the museum, introduced in 2014, invite new forms of engagement with the Cooper Hewitt collection. They encourage active participation, letting visitors play, design and collect through multi-touch table applications and the Pen.
  • Before we were able to re-design the visitor’s relationship to the museum we went through comprehensive changes at every level.

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Comprehensive Re-design / Institutional Shift

  • We began a restoration of the mansion, stripping it down to its Carnegie steel girders.
  • To a similar degree we rethought the organizational infrastructure of Cooper Hewitt with a comprehensive re-design of operations, workflows and responsibilities.

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New Responsibilities (for Everyone)

  • There were new jobs created to support the new visitor experience, including that of our Gallery Technology Manager, Mary Fe, whose job responsibilities include maintaining the Pens and troubleshooting touch tables and gallery interactives
  • The re-design affects every staff member at Cooper Hewitt:
  • Registrars: aggressive timetable to enter data
  • Security: understand the mission and visitor experience, teaching visitors on pen usage
  • Exhibitions: label programming, maintenance
  • Curators: tags, relations, chat formatting for length
  • Visitor services: pen pairing – whole new step in between “welcome” and ticket sale
  • Before we got to this stage there was the task of onboarding staff to new responsibilities, which fell largely to the Digital & Emerging Media department. With the allocation of new responsibilities also came the opportunity to create tools that could facilitate some of the work.

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Defining the Need for Considered Interfaces

  • Why did we decide that new interfaces were necessary in certain parts of the workflow?
  • We started with observation, watching workflows as they emerged. We created tools to assist where necessary. The need for interfaces was in part logistical, in part technical and also in part human.
  • Candidates for interface development are parts of the new digital ecosystem where there is:
  • High volume of data
  • Large number of users
  • Complex tasks
  • Something that needs constraints or enforcement
  • Example: the job of assigning tags and related objects to everything we put on display for the reopening. The touch table interfaces utilize tag and related object information. This data does not live in TMS, so it is housed in a custom database.
  • The task of creating the data fell to the curators. Originally this was stored in Excel files. While the curators were happy using spreadsheets, we identified a few major issues with them. The biggest one was that every department had devised their own schema for storing the data, which would ultimately have to be reconciled
  • This example fits all of the criteria above.

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Case Study 1: Tagatron

  • Explicit purpose of the Tagatron tool: make the work quicker; make the metadata consistent; make the organization of the metadata consistent
  • Making this tool highlighted for the digital team the complex relationship between the work, the tool, and the people responsible for each—even though we believed the tool made things easier, the tool had its own set of ongoing technical and usability issues
  • We found that those issues propagated an amount of distrust or lack of confidence in the larger project. Some of these were due to bugs in the tool, but some of it was just that now it was known that this was work that would be “enforced” or taken more seriously, which made users uncomfortable.
  • Key idea: the interface takes on a symbolic value in representing “new responsibilities” and can bring about issues that it might not have been designed to address. It takes on a complex position between human needs and technical needs.

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Tagatron (continued)

  • These graphs illustrate how prolific the task of tagging and relating objects is. It was important to build Tagatron because it is crucial tool in the ongoing operation of the museum’s digital experience. More so than the spreadsheets ever could, it allows for scalability.
  • Since the re-opening the tool went through one major design and backend overhaul, and continues to see small iterations.

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Case Study 2: Pen Pairing Stations

  • Context of Pen Pairing: Every visitor to the museum receives a Pen. At the museum’s front desk each Pen is paired with a unique admission ticket. Every ticket has a shortcode identifier that allows visitors to retrieve their Pen visit data online when they enter the code on their ticket.
  • Pen pairing is done at a very critical point in the visitor experience when the interaction needs to be quick and frictionless. Visitor Services Associates have to coordinate a number of simultaneous tasks.

Pen Pairing Station (continued)

  • This video depicts the Pen pairing process behind the front desk. It documents the first version of the Pen Pairing application, and shows the exposed Pen-reading circuit board before housing was built.
  • Pen pairing is one of the most demanding of the new responsibilities created by the “new experience”–has to fit between welcoming a visitor, taking their money, answering any questions, looking up their member ID.
  • Each use of the tool only lasts 5-10 seconds but we’ve spent many hours and built many versions of this tool to figure out exactly what needs to happen in that time to accomplish all the tasks, including updating databases, handling failures, serial communication
  • Every one of these iterations gave us an opportunity to be connected to the staff using the tools, not only to make something that works better, but to be a part of the conversation

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Administrative Interfaces: What does success look like? How does it feel?

  • In informal interviews with Tagatron users we found trust to be a central theme of users’ response to the interface
  • Since Tagatron augments the curators’ use of TMS, they were less trusting of its database as a long-lasting data repository
  • Improving user feedback (like confirmation messages) helped build trust in the interface
  • Bill Moggridge, Designing Interaction: designing interaction is designing the relationship between people and things
  • We came to realize the responsibility of designing interfaces—validating and responding to users’ concerns; acknowledging the burden of new responsibilities
  • Administrative interfaces at the crux of the staff relationship to the new Cooper Hewitt experience
  • Anticipating issues in developing and maintaining administrative interfaces (when success feels like failure):
  • First, the human factor: being open to the feedback and creating an environment where the channels exist to communicate staff thoughts on the tool.
  • Second, the technical factor: being able to act on what you hear from staff and make the required changes to complete the feedback loop.
  • Our responsibility as facilitators of technology in the museum to hear and act on concerns.

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Questions to ask when starting an administrative application to anticipate issues and accommodate of feedback.

Question 1: To what degree should the (administrative) tool fit with pre-existing notions?

  • This question addresses the need to understand contextual use of the tool
  • Tagatron: curatorial culture around spreadsheets and TMS
  • Pen Pairing Station: this tool disrupted the expected ticket selling workflow. We learned the that the tool needed to make Pen Pairing as unobtrusive as possible

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Question 2: How much of the underlying technology should come through to the interface?

  • Infrastructure & interfaces are layers of an onion—the best mental model for a tool’s interface might not reflect the best technical model for its back end
  • Tagatron: the filtering tools were a reflection of how data was stored in the database, not how curators expected it
  • Pen Pairing Station: error messages from all parts of the application stack came through to the user unaltered, this was not helpful to users
  • Highlights the need for a technical solution that allows for flexibility in the middle, “translation layer” of an application

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Question 3: What kinds of feedback does the tool provide?

  • Feedback is the voice of the interface/ its personality–is it finicky or reliable? Annoying or supportive?
  • Tagatron: missing feedback created distrust
  • Pen Pairing: too much feedback caused confusion (error messages, validation handshake)
  • Our design and production methodology: working code always wins/ learning through doing; build small, working prototypes and continually iterate.
  • A more anticipatory form of design (like design thinking) could have helped us find answers to this question sooner

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Question 4: Is it an appropriate time for experimentation?

  • Tagatron’s v1 included relatively unknown-to-us technology like MongoDB and nodejs. We should have used more familiar technology or done small-scale tests before implementing a project of this scale–it severely hindered our ability to accommodate feedback
  • Other tools we built that involved experimental tech were only successful because their scale and userbase were far smaller (label writer)

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The result of everything: bridges, lines of communication opened

  • Building administrative tools for staff created cross-departmental conversation—in taking on the role of building and maintaining Tagatron and the Pen Pairing Station, the Digital & Emerging Media team engaged users from departments across the museum and observed closely how the tools fit into staff members’ larger roles

A colophon for bias

The term [colophon] derives from tablet inscriptions appended by a scribe to the end of a … text such as a chapter, book, manuscript, or record. In the ancient Near East, scribes typically recorded information on clay tablets. The colophon usually contained facts relative to the text such as associated person(s) (e.g., the scribe, owner, or commissioner of the tablet), literary contents (e.g., a title, “catch” phrase, number of lines), and occasion or purpose of writing.


A couple of months ago we added the ability to search the collections website by color using more than one palette. A brief refresher: Our search by color functionality works by first extracting the dominant palette for an index. That means the top 5 colors out of a possible 32 million choices. 32 million is too large a surface area to search against so each of the five results are then “snapped” to their closest match on a much smaller grid of possible colors. These matches are then indexed and used to query our database when someone searches for objects matching a specific color.

It turns out that the CSS3 color palette which defines a fixed set of 138 colors is an excellent choice for doing this sort of thing. CSS is the acronym for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) which is a “language used to describe the presentation” of a webpage separate from its content. Instead of asking people searching the collections website to be hyper-specific in their queries we take the color they are searching for and look for the nearest match in the CSS palette.

For example: #ef0403 becomes #ff0000 or “red”. #f2e463 becomes #f0e68c or “khaki” and so on.

This approach allows us to not only return matches for a specific color but also to show objects that are more like a color than not. It’s a nice way to demonstrate the breadth of the collection and also an invitation to pair objects that might never be seen together.


From the beginning we’ve always planned to support multiple color palettes. Since the initial search-by-color functionality was built in a hurry with a focus on seeing whether we could get it to work at all adding support for multiple palettes was always going to require some re-jiggering of the original code. Which of course means that finding the time to make those changes had to compete with the crush of everything else and on most days it got left behind.

Earlier this year Rebecca Alison Meyer the 6-year old daughter of Eric Meyer, a long-standing member of the CSS community, died of cancer. Eric’s contributions and work to promote the CSS standard can not be overstated. The web would be an entirely other (an entirely poorer) space without his efforts and so some people suggested that a 139th color be added to the CSS Color module to recognize his work and honor his daughter. In June Dominique Hazaël-Massieux wrote:

I’m not sure about how one goes adding names to CSS colors, and what the specific purpose they fulfill, but I think it would be a good recognition of @meyerweb ‘s impact on CSS, and a way to recognize that standardization is first and foremost a social process, to name #663399 color “Becca Purple”.

In reply Eric Meyer wrote:

I have been made aware of the proposal to add the named color beccapurple (equivalent to #663399) to the CSS specification, and also of the debate that surrounds it.

I understand the arguments both for and against the proposal, but obviously I am too close to both the subject and the situation to be able to judge for myself. Accordingly, I let the editors of the Colors specification know that I will accept whatever the Working Group decides on this issue, pro or con. The WG is debating the matter now.

I did set one condition: that if the proposal is accepted, the official name be rebeccapurple. A couple of weeks before she died, Rebecca informed us that she was about to be a big girl of six years old, and Becca was a baby name. Once she turned six, she wanted everyone (not just me) to call her Rebecca, not Becca.

She made it to six. For almost twelve hours, she was six. So Rebecca it is and must be.

Shortly after that #663399 or rebeccapurple was added to the CSS4 Colors module specification. At which point it only seemed right to finally add support for multiple color palettes to the collections website.


Over the course of a month or so, in the margins of day, all of the search-by-color code was rewritten to work with more than a single palette and now you can search the collection for objects in the shade of rebeccapurple.

In addition to the CSS3 and CSS4 color palettes we also added support for the Crayola color palette. For example, the closest color to “rebeccapurple” in the Crayola scheme of things is “cyber grape”.

You can see all the possible nearest-colors for an object by appending /colors to an object page URL. For example:

The dominant color for this object is #683e7e which maps to #58427c or “cyber grape” in Crayola-speak and #483d8b or “dark slate blue” in CSS3-speak and #663399 or “rebeccapurple” in CSS4-speak.

Now that we’ve done the work to support multiple palettes the only limits to adding more is time and imagination. I would like to add a greyscale palette. I would like to add one or more color-blind palettes. I would especially like to add a “blue” palette – one that spans non-photo blue through International Klein Blue all the way to Kind of Bloop midnight blue just to see where along that spectrum objects which aren’t even a little bit blue would fall.

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 12.42.02 PM

The point being that there are any number of color palettes that we can devise and use as a lens through which to see our collection. Part of the reason we chose to include the Crayola color palette in version “2” of search-by-color is because the colors they’ve chosen have been given expressive names whose meaning is richer than the sum of their descriptive parts. What does it mean for an object’s colors to be described as macaroni and cheese-ish or outer space-ish in nature? Erika Hall’s 2007 talk Copy is Interface is an excellent discussion of this idea.

I spoke about some of these things last month at the The Search is Over workshop, in London. I described the work we have done on the collections website, to date, as a kind of managing of absence. Specifically the absence of metadata and ways to compensate for its lack or incompleteness while still providing a meaningful catalog and resource.

It is through this work that we started to articulate the idea that: The value of the whole in aggregate, for all its flaws, outweighs the value of a perfect subset. The irregular nature of our collection metadata has also forced us to consider that even if there were a single unified interface to convey the complexities of our collection it is not a luxury we will enjoy any time soon.


Further the efforts of more and more institutions (the Cooper Hewitt included) to embark on mass-digitization projects forces an issue that we, as a sector, have been able to side-step until now: That no one, including lots of people who actually work at museums, have ever seen much of the work in our collections. So in relatively short-order we will transition from a space defined by an absence of data to one defined by a surfeit of, at the very lest, photographic evidence that no one will know how to navigate.

To be clear: This is a good problem to have but it does mean that we will need to starting thinking about models to recognize the shape of the proverbial elephant in the room and building tools to see it.

It is in those tools that another equally important challenge lies. The scale and the volume of the mass-digitization projects being undertaken means that out of necessity any kind of first-pass cataloging of that data will be done by machines. There simply isn’t the time (read: money) to allow things to be cataloged by human hands and so we will inevitably defer to the opinion of computer algorithms.

This is not necessary as dour a prediction as it might sound. Color search is an example of this scenario and so far it’s worked out pretty well for us. What search-by-color and other algorithmic cataloging points to is the need to develop an iconography, or a colophon, to indicate machine bias. To design and create language and conventions that convey the properties of the “extruder” that a dataset has been shaped by.


Those conventions don’t really exist yet. Bracketing search by color with an identifiable palette (a bias) is one stab at the problem but there are so many more places where we will need to signal the meaning (the subtext?) of an automated decision. We’ve tried to address one facet of this problem with the different graphic elements we use to indiciate the reasons why an object may not have an image.



Left to right: We’re supposed to have a picture for this object… but we can’t find it; This object has not been photographed; This object has been photographed but for some reason we’re not allowed to show it to you… you know, even though it’s been acquired by the Smithsonian.

Another obvious and (maybe?) easy place to try out this idea is search itself. Search engines are not, in fact, magic. Most search engines work the same way: A given string is “tokenized” and then each resultant piece is “filtered”. For the example the phrase “checkered Girard samples” might typically be tokenized by splitting things on whitespace but you could just as easily tokenize it by any pattern that can be expressed to a computer. So depending on your tokenized you might end up with a list like:

  • checkered
  • Girard
  • samples


  • checkered Girard
  • samples

Each one of those “tokens” are then analyzed and filtered according to their properties. Maybe they get grouped by their phonetics, which is essentially how the snap-to-grid trick works for the collection’s color search. Maybe they are grouped by what type of word they are: proper nouns, verbs, prepositions and so on. I’ve never actually seen a search engine that does this but there is nothing technically to prevent someone from doing it either.

The simplest and dumbest thing would be to indicate on a search results page that your query results were generated using one or more tokenizers or filters. In our case that would be (1) tokenizer and (5) filters.


    1. Unicode Standard Annex #29


      1. Remove English possessives
      2. Lowercase all tokens
      3. Ingore a set list of stopwords
      4. Stem tokens according to the Porter Stemming Algorithm
      5. Convert non-ascii characters to ascii

That’s not very sexy or ooh-shiny but not everything needs to be. What it does, though, is provide a measure of transparency for people to gauge the reality that any result set is the product of choices which may have little or no relationship to the question being asked or the person asking that question.

These are devices, for sure, and they are not meant to replace a more considered understanding or contemplation of a topic but they can act as an important shorthand to indicate the arc of an answer’s motive.


And that’s just for search engines. Now imagine what happens when we all start pointing computer vision algorithms at our collections…

Update: Since publishing this blog post the nice people working on the GOV.UK websites launched “info” pages. Visitors can now append /info to any of the pages on the website will and see what and who and how that part of the website is supposed to do. Writing about the project they say:

An ‘info’ page contains the user needs the page is intended to meet … Providing an easy way to jump from content to the underpinning needs allows content designers coming to a new topic to understand the need and build empathy with the users quicker. Publishing the GOV.UK user needs should also make the team’s work more transparent and traceable.


Why are we collecting source code?



Part of what we continue to work on in parallel to the opening of Cooper Hewitt is capacity building for the museum to collect ‘the present’ – which includes the code that underpins and makes functional much of the ‘designs’ of the modern world. That means all the interactive, networked design ‘objects/works’, not just on screens but also those embedded in products, services and systems. I’m not just interested in this for ‘digital preservation’ reasons, but also to help us come up with new ways to interpret, contextualise and communicate the ‘how and why’ of these objects (and the choices the designers made) to our visitors.

Aaron liked what I wrote to a designer with whom we are working with on collecting some interactive pieces, and thought it made sense to share it in a redacted form. Sometimes it is nice to be asked to be explicit about why the underlying code matters – and so here’s what I wrote.

As the (publicly-funded) national design museum, one of the reasons we are interested in acquiring the underlying code and data is that allows the museum and future scholars and researches to explicitly explore and interrogate the choices and decisions made at the time of a work’s creation in response the the technological constraints of the time, as well as the adjustments made through a work’s creation to make it better respond to the needs of users. In the case of Planetary this is why we acquired the entire Github repository – the versioned codebase.

Approaching your choices of language and platform as ‘materials’ that were shaped by the period in which the work was made, as well as your decisions in the code itself, is extremely useful for interpretation and future scholarship. Nick Monfort & Ian Bogost’s book on the affordances of the Atari 2600 platform, Racing the Beam, is just one example of the kind of scholarship we foresee as being possible when code and data is acquired with works. This sort of exploration – of decisions made, and the technological and social constraints encountered – is key to Cooper Hewitt helping the public to interrogate and understand works in the collection and the work of designers as more than just aesthetic experiences.

Increasingly when we are acquiring interactive works we are also interested in how users used and reacted to them. In these cases we would also consider acquiring user research, user feedback and usage data along with a work – so that future scholars and visitors could understand a work’s success in achieving its stated goals. In terms of product design collections this is often reduced to ‘market and sales performance’ but we feel that in the case of works on the internet there is far more potential opportunity to explore other more complex and nuanced measures of relative ‘success’ that reveal the work that interaction designers and the choices they make.

In respect to [redacted] specifically, it helps visitors understand that you made this work in a particular way when you did because that’s how the technology and access to data was at the time. And that if that it was to remade now in 2014, there might be a multiplicity of new ways to do it now and we can explicitly talk about the differences.

The other reason is that the underlying code and data better enables the museum to preserve these works as part of the Smithsonian’s collection indefinitely in the public trust – and perhaps exhibit them 100 years from now.


A Kiwi spends three weeks in the Cooper-Hewitt Labs

the savage’s romance,
accreted where we need the space for commerce–
the center of the wholesale fur trade,
starred with tepees of ermine and peopled with foxes,
the long guard-hairs waving two inches beyond the body of the pelt;
the ground dotted with deer-skins–white with white spots,
“as satin needlework in a single color may carry a varied pattern,”
and wilting eagle’s-down compacted by the wind;
and picardels of beaver-skin; white ones alert with snow.
It is a far cry from the “queen full of jewels”
and the beau with the muff,
from the gilt coach shaped like a perfume-bottle,
to the conjunction of the Monongahela and the Allegheny,
and the scholastic philosophy of the wilderness.
It is not the dime-novel exterior,
Niagra Falls, the calico horses and the war-canoe;
it is not that “if the fur is not finer than such as one sees others wear,
one would rather be without it”–
that estimated in raw meat and berries, we could feed the universe;
it is not the atmosphere of ingenuity,
the otter, the beaver, the puma skins
without shooting-irons or dogs;
it is not the plunder,
but “accessibility to experience.”

Marianne Moore, ‘New York’.

It has been said of New Zealanders that we are a poetry-loving nation, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen a poem to start this blogpost on just a few of the experiences I’ve had during my time in the Digital & Emerging Media department (aka Labs) here at Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City.

(The tenses change throughout as a reflection of how this #longread was assembled. They have been preserved to preserve the moments that they were written in).

I’m here on a three-week scholarship in memory of the late Paul Reynolds, a man who loved libraries, museums, art, archives and digital access to them. Like Bill Moggridge, the former director of the Cooper-Hewitt, Paul passed away of cancer before his time. Paul would have been so interested by what this museum is doing.

The award is administered by New Zealand’s library and information association, LIANZA, and I’ve also been generously supported by my workplace, the First World War Centenary Programme Office within the Ministry for Culture & Heritage, to take it up.

In particular, I’m here because I wanted to study a museum in the midst of transforming itself into an environment for active engagement with collection-based stories, knowledge, and information – or ‘experiential learning’ – and the innovative use of networked media in this context. It has been a rare privilege to be here while the Cooper-Hewitt are going through this change.

Screen shot 2013-10-03 at 9.45.53 AM

New York is no longer “starred with tepees of ermine and peopled with foxes” – it’s more kale salads and small dogs. Nonetheless, you can get a sense of some of the experiences I’ve had since being here on my #threesixfive project for this year.

The rules for this project are pretty simple. Each day, I take a photograph using my cell phone and Instagram and connect it with one from the past in the online collections of a library, archive or museum. Connections can be visual, geographical, conceptual, or tangentially semantic.

In New Zealand, I draw on historical images from the pictorial collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library, largely because they make their online items so easy to share and re-use. Here, I’m borrowing (with permission) material from the New York Public Library.

I sometimes refer to this as my ‘this is water’ project, in reference to David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. As Wallace describes ‘learning how to think’ in his post-modern way:

It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

I choose to pay attention to the present as well as the past presents within it. I think this is also a reasonably accurate description of the work the team behind the Cooper-Hewitt Labs, and those they work with in the wider museum, are doing as well.



I’ve had an eclectic curriculum while I’ve been here. If my learning journey were a mythic story, it would go a bit like this:

Act One:

– The ordinary world: I go about my daily life working for the government in New Zealand, but know that I am lacking in-depth knowledge of how to move from ‘publishing content’ to ‘designing experiences’ for learning.
– Call to adventure: I get an email from LIANZA telling me that I have won an award to gain this knowledge. (A major earthquake also strikes the city).
– Meeting with the mentor: Seb Chan begins preparing me from afar to face the unknown. Emails and instructions arrive. I find an apartment. I book tickets for planes and theatre shows.
– Crossing the threshold: I cross from the ordinary world into the special world. Seb invites me to Central Park (near the Cooper-Hewitt museum) with his family. I get instructions for catching the subway and learn where to get palatable coffee. I obtain a subway ticket – my talisman.

Act Two:

– Approach to the Inmost Cave: I re-enter the subway and enter the Cooper-Hewitt where the object of my quest (knowledge) exists. There are security guards and curators and educators. I meet the members of the Cooper-Hewitt labs team. There is a mash-up picture on the wall of a cat with a unicorn horn. Another shows a cat being . . . Wait, what’s happening in that image?

Things happen . . . I get a virus and lose my voice . . . and then here I am three weeks later preparing to return home to the ordinary world, bottling some of the elixir by way of this blog post.

I draw on the idea of mythic storytelling not to be clever (well, maybe a little bit), but also to introduce some of the values and influences shaping the Cooper-Hewitt’s approach to their museum redevelopment.

Seb has written great posts on the two experimental theatre pieces Then She Fell by Third Rails Projects and Sleep No More by Punchdrunk over on Fresh and New. Among other things, these hint at the Cooper-Hewitt’s choice to knowingly break the rules and tell stories in a non-linear way. I won’t cover the same ground here.

Another key inspiration is the Museum of New Art in Tasmania.

The idea of the talisman (in Then She Fell a set of keys; in Sleep No More a white mask; in MONA the ‘o’) is an important one and seems to inform the Cooper-Hewitt’s approach to visitor technology. Devices that are accessible to all, the visitor’s ability to unlock stories through interaction, and the availability of all the information about collection items being online after you visit are also relevant.

In addition to the ‘memorability’ of the event, a few other thoughts spring to mind on elements of Then She Fell and Sleep No More. Both relate to a conversation I had with Jake Barton of Local Projects on the relationship of audience to successful experience design. I’ll talk more about Local Projects later in this post.

Meanwhile, in both Sleep No More and Then She Fell, all you are given as you are guided to cross the threshold into the story-world are the rules for engagement and a talisman. Beyond this the ‘set’ (which incorporates the atmosphere and fabric of the site it is layered over) feels simultaneously theatrical (magical) and life-like (real).

I mention this because of the observation Jake made on creating digital applications that are wondrous enough to work for everyone because they tap into real-world human experiences. Obviously you wouldn’t take an eight year old to Sleep No More, so content choices are important. But the fundamental interaction works for everyone. This is also the case with the Cleveland Art Museum line and shape interactive.

In Then She Fell, these interactions are also personalised and, while guided, audience members make choices that drive the outcome of the scene. Taking dictation for the Mad Hatter using a fountain pen, for example, an actor improvised and remarked “my, you do have nice handwriting. I can see why you come highly recommended”. In another scene plucked from the database of scenes, a doctor asked me a series of questions as he progressively concocted a blend of tea for me, which I then drank. Other scenes were arrestingly intimate.

Another striking aspect of these environments is the radical trust the theatre company invests in its audience to be human and responsible. Of course none of the objects or archival files and letters in Sleep No More or Then She Fell are real, nor are the books copies of last resort.

But the fact that you can touch them and leaf through them and hold them in your hand, or that you can use them to figure things out is a really potent part of the experience.



Quote from Carl Malamud above Aaron Straup Cope’s desk.

My time in New York hasn’t all been theatre visits and blog publishing. With the Carnegie mansion that houses the Cooper-Hewitt closed for renovation and expansion of the public gallery space, I’ve also been spending time with staff immersed in the process of design and making.

When the building re-opens next year, the museum will be an environment that, as Jake Barton of Local Projects put it, “makes design something people can participate in” – not just look at or learn ‘about’ through didactic label text or the end-product of someone else’s creativity.

Local Projects are the media partners for the Cooper-Hewitt refurbishment, with architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Their philosophy is encapsulated in a quote from Confucius that Jake frequently references in his public talks;

I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.

You can see how complementary this thinking is with the immersive theatre environments of Sleep No More and Then She Fell.

By way of illustration, the Cooper-Hewitt wants to encourage a more diverse range of visitors to learn about design by letting them collect and interact with networked collection objects and interpretive content in the galleries.

New Zealanders might think of the ‘lifelines’ table at the National Library of New Zealand designed by Clicksuite, which is driven off the Digital New Zealand API; and Americans might recall the recent collection wall at the Cleveland Art Museum, also designed by Local Projects.

But the Cooper-Hewitt is neither a library nor an art museum. It’s a design museum – “the only museum in the United States dedicated just to historic and contemporary design”.

Consequently, applications Local Projects develops with the museum also seek to incorporate design process layers where visitors can make connections and learn more about objects on display and also be designers.

The challenge, as Jake articulated it when we met, is ‘how you transmit knowledge within experiential learning (the elixir)?’. How do you make information seep in in a deeper way so that visitors or audience members do, in fact, learn?

The gradual reveal of the story in Then She Fell, with spaces also for solitary reflection and contemplation, is significant I think. I suspect I’m not the only one who googled the relationship of Alice Liddell to Lewis Carroll in the days after the performance.


If Then She Fell and Sleep No More were like slipping into a forgotten analogue world of the collection stores, Massive Attack v Adam Curtis was like all of the digitization projects of the past decade come back to haunt you.

Curtis describes this ‘total experience’ as a “a gilm’ – a new way of integrating a gig with a film that has a powerful overall narrative and emotional individual stories”. It’s not too far a cry from the word we use in New Zealand to describe the collecting sector of galleries, libraries archives and museums and their potential for digital convergence: a glam.

Imagine Jane Fonda jazzercising it up on a dozen or so massive screens on three walls of a venue, collaged with Adam Curtis’ commentary on how the 80s instituted a new regime of bodily management and control, and Massive Attack with Liz Fraser and Horace Andy covering 80s tunes that you can’t help moving along with. This is the first time I’ve experienced kinaesthetic-visual juxtaposition as a storytelling technique.

It is really hard to find yourself dancing to the aftermath of Chernobyl. It is also very memorable.

As Curtis describes the collaboration between United Visual Artists, Punchdrunk’s Felix Barrett and stage designer Es Devlin: “What links us is not just cutting stuff up – but an interest in trying to change the way people see power and politics in the modern world.”

“I see the people who created our Internet as a gift to the world” – Carl Malamud

“A fake, but enchanting world which we all live in today – but which has also become a new kind of prison that prevents us moving forward into the future” – Adam Curtis

How do we transform our institutions into way-finding devices for the cultural landscapes of the present and past presents, not prisons?



Marco Fusinato, ‘Mass Black Implosion (Shaar, Iannis Xenakis)’ 2012. (Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery)

“To make these drawings, Fusinato chose a single note as a focal point and then painstakingly connected it to every other note on the page” – MOMA interpretation label

Like many museums around the world, the Cooper-Hewitt as a Smithsonian-Institution has been seeking to broaden access to its collections online and deepen relationships with its audiences.

Much of the recent work of the museum that I’ve observed has focused on establishing two-way connections and associations between each of the many hundreds of objects that will physically be on display in the galleries and at least ten related ‘virtual’ objects and related media.

These thousands of digital objects in total will be available through the Cooper Hewitt’s collections API, which will also be a foundation for interactive experiences and other applications where people can manipulate and do things with content to learn more about design and the stories embedded in the museum’s collections.

But there’s a snag.

The vast majority of information and story potential, the knowledge and the ability to see meaningful and significant connections, isn’t in the database. It’s in the heads of the collection experts: the curators. Extracting this narrative and getting it into useful digital form is a huge undertaking.

Progress is being made though. I happily sat in on a checkpoint meeting for curators to make sure that objects they were tagging with a vocabulary (co-designed with the museum’s educators who bring “verbs to the curator’s nouns”) would not be orphaned. If objects are tagged, and another curator doesn’t use the same tag, the connection will be lost.

Thus, as one curator put out a call for colleagues to dive into their part of a collection, a wallpaper with a Z pattern found its match in a Zig Zag chair. Pleated paper found its match in an Issey Miyake dress. This is a laborious and time-consuming process, coordinated by Head of Cross-Platform Publishing Pam Horn.

But it means that the collection is starting to come alive in that ‘1 + 1 = 4’ way that is so magical. Through a balance of curatorial and automated processes, these connections and pathways through the collection will (all going to plan) continue to multiply over the months to come.

Visitors will also be able to find their own way through the knowledge the museum holds, and access all of the data online – much as every museum is also trying to connect pre- and post-visits together.

“Now find your own way home” – Massive Attack v Adam Curtis



Aaron exposes the power structure that is the donor walls of New York City – Pratt Institute, 14th Street.

On Tuesday nights I’ve been accompanying Seb and Aaron to teach a graduate class at Pratt Institute called Museums and the Network (subtitle Caravvagio in the age of Dan Flavin lights). The syllabus states: “Museums have been deeply impacted by the changes in the digital landscape.

At the same time they are buffeted by the demographic transformations of their constituent communities and changes in education. The collapsing barriers to collection, publishing and distribution afforded by the internet have further eroded the museum’s role as cultural conduit.”

It’s a wonderful learning environment, full of serious play and playful seriousness; theoretical ideas and practical examples. Just like the real Cooper-Hewitt Labs.

The students’ ultimate project will be to create an exhibit – perhaps out of the collection of donor walls of New York’s museums – one of the class’ first assignments. Donor walls loom large and prominently in the cultural institutions here. So much of the work of the sector is funded through endowments and private donations.

Like the Cooper-Hewitt, the students have started by digitising the donor walls and turning all their data into a structured open form so that they (and others) can start to tell stories out of it and present it through a web interface. They are gradually building up to staging an exhibition, “that exists at the intersection of the physical and the internet, from concept through development”.

The readings from this class have become my Instapaper companions as I commute for 40 minutes up the island of Manhattan each morning, and home again. I’ve also started to imagine a museum exhibit of my time in New York. Or perhaps it’s a conceptual art piece or a marketing intervention.


Whatever it is, you enter a space that looks like a real installation install. It’s probably painted off-white. There are pieces of papers on the wall with numbers, plinths on which objects could stand, sheets of blank paper in cabinet drawers, empty glass cases and maybe even 3D replicas of framed paintings that are also off-white.

A docent (in New Zealand we call them visitor hosts) guides you to an “information desk” where you can collect a mobile guide or brochures in exchange for your own personal cell phone, which you must check in. You are told that you can read whatever you like on the guide, but you must not erase the content you find there or create new content.

You are told how to use the phone to interact with the numbers on the walls.

Exploring the various applications on the phone you begin to uncover the story of the visitor who came before you. You read their text messages, look at their Instagram feed, explore their Twitter profile and open their photographs (which show photographs of objects, followed by labels with prominent numbers matching the ones on the walls). Maybe there’s a projector installed.

As you stand next to your friend in front of the same object (perhaps it’s the 3D-printed white replica of a framed painting with no texture to indicate the pictorial content) you realize that you have different content on your phones. They are seeing a Van Gogh at #7, you a Rembrandt. You talk about what you (can’t) see. Perhaps there are also some color-less 3D printed replicas of sculptural pieces or other collection items you can hold.

Other audience members text #7 to the number they have been given, and are sent back a record for an object. This is a project that Micah has been playing with using the collections API, using Twilio.

As you hand back the device, you are given the address of a museum where you can see the collection and a URL for it online. Perhaps you exit through a gift shop where you can buy printed postcards of what you didn’t see.

Enough speculation. This is not the collaborative project I came here to consider. Nor am I entirely serious (well, maybe a little bit serious).


(Record of trip to New Museum)


There are many comments I could make about the differences and similarities between what I’ve experienced in my short time in New York City and what is familiar to me back home.

At the risk of generalizing, I could talk about the constraints that the grant-based funding model here seem to place on the ability to play a long game with digital infrastructure or to embed sustainable museological practice into the fabric of the institution.

I could talk about how the Cooper-Hewitt seems to run on a skeleton staff of just 73 people, which is small (even by New Zealand standards), for a national institution. How museums I have worked with in New Zealand use visitor and market research and audience segmentation as a foundation for decision-making about programming opportunities, which seems less evident here.

I could mention how far ahead collection documentation and interpretation strategies seem in museums with equivalent missions in New Zealand such as Te Papa – where relating exhibition label text, narratives, external collections and content assets such as videos around online collections is now everyday practice.

I could talk about how ‘coffee plunger’ is a dirty word for French press, how people walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk, and how the light switches go up not down to power on the light. But these are just surface differences for the same basic human motivations.

What I want to highlight, however, isn’t any of these things. Nor is it a comparison. It’s the willingness I’ve seen of staff at the Cooper-Hewitt to start working together across disciplinary boundaries and departments (education/curatorial/digital media) to continue Bill Moggridge’s vision for an ‘active visitor’ to the museum.

This kind of cultural change takes time. (And time already moves slower in museums than the real world). It’s messy and confusing and identity-challenging. It’s hard to achieve when short-term priorities and established modes of operating keep jostling for the attention of the same staff who need to be its agents.

Yet everyone I have met in my short time here has been so friendly and willing to share information with me. Echoing the sentiment of many that I have talked to at the Cooper-Hewitt, I am also hugely grateful to Seb for his encouraging mentorship and guidance, and Aaron for challenging me to think harder.

As Larry Wall puts it in ‘Perl, the first postmodern computer language’, “these are the people who inhabit the intersections of the Venn diagrams”. The accessibility to experience made possible by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City will be so much richer for their efforts.

I hope it continues to grow and flourish for many years to come.

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

Three adventures in universal design, or, what does a veggie peeler have in common with a museum? (0/3)

A hand shown holding a black, rubberized OXO veggie peeler against a crisp white backdrop.

Though designed specifically for the arthritic, this product “appeals” to everyone.

“The way to think about ‘everybody’ is not to think about the average person in the middle, but to think about the extremes. Think about people at the edges of your potential buying public and think about people who are most challenged.”
[Dan Formosa interviewed by Debbie Millman in Brand Thinking]

If you hang out at a design museum long enough, you start to pick up on certain recurring concepts. One good recurring concept has to do with a thing called universal design:

The term “universal design” was coined by the architect Ronald L. Mace to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

So what’s the lesson behind universal design? Pretend you’re a bossman trying to cut costs wherever possible. For you, universal design might seem like a non-critical endeavor. Sure, it would be nice for the disabled and the elderly to have easy access to all aspects of your [insert product being designed here], but you don’t have room in the budget for anything elaborate. “We’ll tackle accessibility if we have leftover funds at the end of the project,” you’d say. Or “after we design the bulk of our [widget], then we’ll start work on the accessibility stuff because it’s required by law.”

If you were to study your design history, however, you’d realize that this view could limit your opportunities for innovation and crowd-pleasing design.

A sign in the foreground reads "This ramp and fishing platform meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act and may be used by anyone. Please respect the desire of people with disabilities to fish on the fishing platform. In the background is a lake surrounded by trees.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required organizations and institutions to make buildings, public transportation, signage, and more accessible to everyone. Image by USFWS Pacific.

The amazing truth of universal design is that when a design team focuses on “edge users,” or “extreme users,” it very often leads to unexpected insights, which can then lead to innovative features that benefit all users. When you design for the edges, everybody benefits.

The OXO Good Grips line is one of the most commonly cited examples of this phenomenon. The Smart Design team sat down to design a line of veggie peelers, can openers and scissors for people with arthritis and limited hand mobility. After the chunky, ergonomically superior new products hit the market, they became a huge mainstream success.

A group of five people riding motorized segway scooters riding single-file down the sidewalk curb cut and into the crosswalk. Washington DC in wintertime. They are wearing winter coats and helmets.

Segway scooter riders enjoy the benefits of curb cut sidewalks. Photo by Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz

Another example are Selwyn Goldsmith‘s “curb cuts.” The mini-ramps we see now on most city street corners were designed primarily with wheelchair users in mind. After they were implemented, it became obvious that this ergonomic consideration benefitted not only wheelchair users, but also luggage-toters, stroller-pushers, stiletto-wearers, cyclists and anybody who enjoys a bit of added ease and comfort in getting around.

With all this in mind, our summer intern (psst—applications for next year are open!Rachel Sakai and I set out to do some research. We have a very small part in the über-mega-process that is the Cooper Hewitt gallery re-design, and we wanted to take on a summer project that could enrich that work.

We decided to focus in on a blind person’s museum experience. How might an understanding of a blind visitor’s experience inform and enhance the design decisions being made in our re-design project?

We chose to embrace a mindset of Human Centered Design. (Note that Human Centered Design is not the same thing as universal design). I’ve helped to create lots of Museum content—videos, exhibitions, books—on the topic of Human Centered Design. After so much experience intellectualizing about the technique, I was pretty eager to find a way to try it myself.

Human-Centered Design (HCD) is a process and a set of techniques used to create new solutions for the world….The reason this process is called “human-centered” is because it starts with the people we are designing for. The HCD process begins by examining the needs, dreams, and behaviors of the people we want to affect with our solutions.
[From IDEO’s HCD ToolKit]

front and back of 3 different method cards. Each card explains a different HCD research method. The front of each card has a full-bleed photo, the back has the name of the method and a short paragraph describing it.

Our 3 chosen IDEO method cards: Empathy Tools, Competitive Product Survey, and Shadowing

We borrowed a set of IDEO method cards from Cara and chose three that served our goal to better understand the blind museum visitor’s experience. In the next three posts, we’ll explain how we applied the methods of Empathy tools, Competitive Product Survey, and Shadowing:

1. Empathy Tools: Go on a blindfolded museum visit.

2. Competitive Product Survey: Take a museum tour designed for the blind.

3. Shadowing: Observe a blind person’s museum visit.


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?