Cooper-Hewitt Advances Strategic Plan to Enhance Collections and Related Programs

Release Date: 
Monday, June 19, 2006

Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum Advances Strategic Plan to Enhance Collections and Related Programs

In 2005–2006, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum continued progress on a strategic plan to enhance its permanent collections and develop dynamic programs drawing from its wide range of design objects. Development of the collections, increased access to scholarly resources, and innovative educational programming are the major components of the museum’s plan for growth under the leadership of director Paul Warwick Thompson. The recently announced $35-million expansion program will optimize exhibition space within the institution’s historic buildings and enhance education and public facilities. This physical expansion, coupled with a reinvigorated online presence and continued emphasis on educational outreach, will further the museum’s mission to raise awareness about the cultural relevance of historic and contemporary design.

“Collections lie at the core of all museums, and our plans for expansion within the Carnegie Mansion will enable us to strengthen ours with new acquisitions,” Thompson said. “We began prioritizing collections-based programming in 2003 with the opening of The Nancy and Edwin Marks Gallery, the museum’s first gallery dedicated to displaying works from the permanent collection. Since then, Cooper-Hewitt’s curatorial focus has shifted to include more exhibitions built around collection objects, allowing the museum to examine the impact of design through reflection upon its own history.”

Collection Growth in 2005–2006

Cooper-Hewitt’s collection is international in scope and contains 200,000 objects, from the Han Dynasty to the present. The museum’s holdings are divided into four curatorial departments: Product Design and Decorative Arts; Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design; Textiles; and Wallcoverings. Exhibitions and design education programming explore the connections between these areas, and foster a dialogue about design and its role in society.

Under curatorial director Barbara Bloemink, Cooper-Hewitt is pursuing an ambitious acquisitions strategy, with criteria aimed at enhancing the quality, depth and coherence of the collection. In the past year, the museum has acquired a number of significant works, in particular examples of 17th/18th-century and 20th-century design. Recent acquisitions of historical importance include:

• a pair of mid-18th-century red walnut English George II chairs with carving in the manner of Thomas Chippendale, the first of this influential type of chair design represented in the museum’s collection
• a 17th-century English Apostle spoon, representing St. Thomas or St. Matthew
• an Imperial Russian porcelain plate, designed for Kremlin use, circa 1830
• a mahogany “Elephant trunk” table designed by Adolph Loos with glass tiles by Loetz Witwe, made in Vienna circa 1910
• Australian designer Mark Newson’s beechwood chair, designed in 1988 and manufactured by Capellini, an example of creative use of wood in contemporary furniture design

Current, Future and Traveling Exhibitions

This year, most of Cooper-Hewitt’s major exhibitions have been drawn from the museum’s collection of design objects spanning 24 centuries.

“Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape,” currently on view, explores 19th-century American scenic painting and offers new insight into these iconic artists while placing their works within the broader context of design, marketing and the history of the tourism industry in America. For the first time in more than 15 years, Cooper-Hewitt’s numerous Church, Homer and Moran holdings are on view, and the exhibition marks the premiere showing of several Homer oil paintings. “Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005,” on view through Oct. 29, explores the forms, rituals of use and social meanings of eating utensils through the museum’s collection of cutlery produced in Europe and the United States over the last 500 years. More than 300 objects are on display, offering a scholarly overview of the evolution of dining and Western culinary culture.

Upcoming Collections-Based Exhibitions

The museum continues its series of collections-based exhibitions organized by invited designers, artists, journalists and authors with “Yinka Shonibare Selects: Works from the Permanent Collection.” As a guest curator, the British/Nigerian artist chose to predominantly feature works acquired by Cooper-Hewitt’s founders Amy, Eleanor and Sarah Hewitt that address themes of transportation, imperialism, migration and cultural exchange. The next exhibition held in the Marks Gallery, “Made to Scale: Staircase Masterpieces for the Permanent Collection,” opening in October, celebrates the recent gift to the museum of Eugene V. Thaw’s collection of staircase models—the largest known holding of such models outside of France. In June 2007 the industrial design firm IDEO, whose staff of engineers and designers has created iconic products and digital interfaces for clients ranging from Apple Computer to Prada, will organize the sixth installment in this exhibition series.

Other upcoming exhibitions that will focus on Cooper-Hewitt’s extensive collections include “Piranesi as Designer,” the first museum exhibition to examine the influence of Italian artist, architect and archeologist Giovanni Battista Piranesi on the reform of architecture and design from the 18th century to the present. “Samplings: Works from the Permanent Collection,” opening in Sept. 2007, will draw from the museum’s collection of sample books—commercial publications containing illustrated examples of a design product or technique—to examine the historical and contemporary use of sampling formats in marketing and manufacturing industries. In addition to these collections-based presentations, Cooper-Hewitt is also organizing “Rococo: The Continuing Curve,” an exhibition which will trace the rococo style from its inception in France in the 18th century through its modern-day revivals.

Traveling Exhibitions

Cooper-Hewitt’s exhibitions have been traveling to other venues more than ever before in the museum’s history, giving national and international audiences the opportunity to access the museum’s collection and curatorial scholarship. The museum’s 2004 exhibition “Shock of the Old: Christopher Dresser,” the first full-scale retrospective of the influential 19th-century designer’s work, traveled to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that same year. “Design ≠ Art: Functional Objects from Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread,” which featured seldom-seen design objects by some of the most well-known contemporary American artists, was on view at the Museum of Design, Atlanta and the Aspen Art Museum in Aspen, Colo. following its 2004–05 installation at Cooper-Hewitt. In 2005 Cooper-Hewitt organized “Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance,” the first museum exhibition to focus on technical textiles, which can currently be seen at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. “Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape” will travel to the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida in Jan. 2007, and in that same month, “Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005” will open at COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, Calif. Additionally, Cooper-Hewitt’s 2002 exhibition “Skin: Surface, Substance, and Design,” will travel to Essen, Germany as part of the ENTRY 2006 exposition.


After a two-year planning process, Cooper-Hewitt has embarked upon a program that will accommodate the museum’s expanding institutional goals. The masterplan for the museum’s expansion affords an additional 8,000 square feet of gallery space, as well as the creation of an off-site storage facility equipped with state of the art conservation labs, a study room and a photography studio that will facilitate the ongoing digitization of the collection. The second floor of the Carnegie Mansion will be entirely dedicated to exhibitions, and a dramatic new gallery will be created on the third floor, increasing the museum’s allotted space for exhibitions from 10,000 to 18,000 square feet. Administrative offices and the National Design Library will be relocated to the Fox-Miller townhouses adjacent to the mansion, unifying resources for students enrolled in Cooper-Hewitt’s Master’s program. Cooper-Hewitt has already raised $13.5 million dollars toward the campaign, including a lead gift from Target, to further strengthen the museum’s overall educational program and mission.

Education, Public Programming, Research and Scholarship

In conjunction with the growth of the permanent collection and exhibitions program, Cooper-Hewitt’s educational initiatives continue to be revitalized. Increased capacity for both student and public programming will allow the museum to reach out to a larger and more diverse audience. New web-based projects currently in development will fuel interest in the museum’s collections and resources, strengthening the institution’s role as a forum for the advancement of design education.

Target National Design Education Center

In April 2006 Cooper-Hewitt celebrated the opening of the Target National Design Education Center, a ground-floor facility consisting of a 100-seat lecture room, a design studio and a resource library. Funded by Target as part of their ongoing commitment to increasing public access to art and design, the Center provides much-needed space for the museum’s expanding roster of programs. All facilities within the Center are equipped with data capture technology, enabling documentation of the programs that will be made available to educators through Cooper-Hewitt’s website. Since its launch the Center has hosted do-it-yourself design workshops, designer talks and exhibition symposia.

National Design Week

Target’s partnership with Cooper-Hewitt will continue with the sponsorship of the 2006 National Design Awards and the first National Design Week, a new education initiative launching this fall in conjunction with the National Design Awards. National Design Week will take place from Oct. 16–22 and, during that week, Cooper-Hewitt will host a number of events in the Target National Design Education Center, including a panel discussion with the 2006 National Design Award winners moderated by this year’s Design Mind Award recipient Paola Antonelli. Additionally, the museum will offer free admission to students and teachers.

As part of this year’s first-ever National Design Week, Cooper-Hewitt is developing special educational web content. The National Design Week web component will include lesson plans aligned to national standards, design games and a calendar with information about other National Design Week events being held nationally. National Design Week will serve as a platform for launching partnerships with design organizations across the country, celebrating the best practices in design education and honoring the projects and individuals who best demonstrate how design improves the quality of life.

Online National Design Museum

To foster greater understanding of the role of design in daily life, Cooper-Hewitt is transforming its website into a comprehensive online design resource. Envisioned as a “museum without walls,” the Online National Design Museum will contain archived exhibition information, streamlined audio and video content from public programs, and articles from the National Design Journal, among other features. Accredited lesson plans, student work and conference transcripts will be available for download by teachers interested in incorporating design into their curricula. Message boards will encourage discourse and create an online think tank for the design community. Cooper-Hewitt is working with an innovative web firm to ensure that the new website will incorporate forward-thinking, interactive technology without sacrificing usability.

In conjunction with the National Design Awards Cooper-Hewitt is also introducing an online People’s Choice Award. Starting in September, the public will be able to nominate and vote for their favorite designs through the museum’s website. The People’s Choice Award will be announced during the Oct. 18 National Design Awards gala.