Hewitt Sisters Collect
The remarkable story of Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt—granddaughters of industrialist and inventor Peter Cooper, founder of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art—is the focus of this exhibition.
In 1897, the sisters established a museum within Cooper Union and curated its core collection. It was conceived as “a practical working laboratory” where students and designers could go to be inspired by actual objects in the four collecting categories then known as Drawings and Prints, Decorative Arts, Wallcoverings, and Textiles that became the basis of today’s collection. With an emphasis on participation, objects could be touched, moved, sketched, photographed, and measured.
Wanting to elevate the state of decorative design in America, they looked to Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs as a model. At home and in their travels to Europe, they purchased works of technical as well as artistic merit. They also solicited friends and acquaintances for contributions of objects or funds to grow the collection.
In 1907, they created an advisory committee consisting of leaders from the artistic, collecting, and business communities. Industrialist J.P. Morgan was one of the committee’s members, donating important collections of 16th-century textiles. The acquisition of French drawings and prints as well as Italian drawings reflects the sisters’ commitment to 18th- and early 19th-century designs on paper in addition to decorative arts.
Even by today’s standards, their vision of creating a museum “for anyone who wanted to use it as a place to work and learn” seems radical. However, thanks to breakthrough technology, we can continue to make the museum-going experience an even more user-focused one.
Until now, the Hewitt sisters’ story has not been widely shared; however, Cooper Hewitt’s opening is the perfect opportunity to recognize their contributions.
In galleries that were formerly Mr. and Mrs. Carnegie’s bedrooms, the Hewitt sisters’ collecting philosophy are celebrated with objects they gave to the museum, or which were acquired under their guidance, ranging from prints, drawings, and textiles to furniture, metalwork, and birdcages.
Meet the Hewitts
Interested in learning more about the Hewitt sisters?
Dive into the multi-part Meet the Hewitts series to explore the upbringing, education, adventures and legacy of the Hewitt family members.
Hewitt Sisters Collect is made possible by generous support from Nancy Marks.
Additional support is provided by Margery and Edgar Masinter and the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.