Coronavirus illustration

The Coronavirus medical illustration by Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins is an exemplary, and ubiquitous design of this moment. Photo credit: Alissa Eckert, MSMI; Dan Higgins, MAMS

In September this year, we launched Cooper Hewitt’s Responsive Collecting Initiative (RCI), a new effort at the museum to solicit, review, and ultimately add objects to the museum’s permanent collection that tell design stories about the historic moments we are living through. Back in March, we found ourselves in lockdown like the rest of the world—sewing face masks for the museum’s essential workers, marveling at the quickly wrought solutions that designers shared on social media, remote-schooling our kids. And then in May, we watched with new-found urgency the protests that erupted around George Floyd’s death.

Lonnie Bunch, the Smithsonian’s secretary, described what we were grappling with as the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and deeply-rooted racism. His words resonated with us: “One of the great strengths of the Smithsonian is that we understand that we are trapped in history only if we fail to learn from it.” Over the institution’s 175-year history, our country has weathered wars and epidemics. Many of our colleagues, past and present, have collected objects with the goal of telling the stories of resilience, injustice, innovation, and healing during these times. This work has exposed the inadequacies of our core institutions while documenting our collective character, constructing a portal to the circumstances of past generations.

Cooper Hewitt didn’t have a mechanism in place to responsively collect designs of the moment. We knew that we needed one, and we wanted to ensure it followed the rigor of our traditional acquisitions protocol, beginning with research and insights by an object’s designer and culminating in presentation and approval to our curatorial team and Cooper Hewitt’s Collection Committee. It was equally as important that the initiative include the collective insights and knowledge of our Cooper Hewitt colleagues, beyond the curators. As curators, we recognize that our reach and perspective is limited, so we assembled a cross-departmental RCI committee with participants from Cooper Hewitt’s visitor experience, digital and emerging media, shop, communications and marketing, conservation, and education departments. Our committee is tasked with reviewing nominations of objects that were solicited via an open call to full-time and contract staff, volunteers, Collections Committee members, and trustees, and has furthered a discussion on the role and process of acquisitions at the museum. We have questioned who should nominate and assess objects, how and why certain objects are acquired, and more.

Our first open call closed on November 6, 2020. We received 81 nominations for designs that addressed COVID-19, the movements for racial and social justice, the 2020 election, and the climate crisis. From New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “New York Tough” poster that illustrated COVID-19 milestones to the WNBA’s Washington Mystics’ Jacob Blake shirt, these objects represent design’s active and passive roles in affecting the intimacies of personal experience and critical global events.

As of this writing, our RCI committee has convened three sessions to review 70 nominations, seeking objects that aren’t just of the moment but also speak to it: objects that open up rich design stories and/or reflect turning points and lasting changes. Our discussions—led by our interdepartmental colleagues—have been vigorous and thoughtful and have initiated new ways of thinking around how the Smithsonian design museum’s collection can serve its stakeholders. Of the 70 projects reviewed, 34 have moved forward, at which point we will reach out to the designers directly to open discussions. We aim to begin presenting the works at Cooper Hewitt’s quarterly collections committee meetings beginning in March 2021. Stay tuned to this space to learn more as we push these efforts forward.

Andrea Lipps is Associate Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt and oversees the museum’s nascent Digital Design collection. Andrea co-chairs the RCI together with Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Contemporary Design Curator at Cooper Hewitt.

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