Matilda McQuaid, Acting Director of Curatorial

Cooper Hewitt celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2022.  This extraordinary milestone will be marked by the exhibition, Sarah & Eleanor Hewitt: Designing a Modern Museum, which honors our founders and their remarkable roles as collectors, philanthropists, and educators. The Hewitt sisters’ aspirations provide the foundation for our mission today—to educate, inspire, and empower people through design—exemplified in our exhibitions, education and public programs, publications, and interactive experiences.

Floorplan of Cooper Union fourth floor space. This angular shape is divided by indications for walls and rooms and stairwells. Inscription on the top right corner reads [Cooper Union Fourth Story - Museum for the Art of Decoration]

Floor plan for The Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, 1913

When Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt opened the galleries of Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration in 1897, they essentially offered the public a free, hands-on learning laboratory to explore areas of the decorative arts and to help students and artisans prepare for pursuing professions such as interior design and architecture. The galleries, then situated on the fourth floor of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science (still open and located at 7 E. 7th Street in New York City), were filled with centuries-old drawings, textiles, wallcoverings, and objects from all over the world and included scrapbooks containing decorative arts photos and clippings from magazines and newspapers.  Everything could be handled (except for textiles) and studied by museum visitors—an experience that Eleanor and Sarah hoped would broaden public taste and learning about American design.

For the Hewitt sisters, the display of the collection was the exhibition, and they were responsible for collecting and donating over 50,000 objects during their lifetime. Cooper Hewitt now has more than 215,000 collection objects, and collecting areas of textiles, wallcoverings, works on paper, and objects have expanded to include born-digital works and a greater focus on contemporary and socially responsible design.  Impossible to have on view all 215,000–plus objects simultaneously (except maybe virtually), the collection is now a resource for exhibitions and a destination for new works from exhibitions that introduce themes and narratives relevant and appropriate for our time.

Exhibition space with grey standing mannequin on a plinth in center-left with figural projection on a transparent screen behind, a curved green screen in the foreground and a panel of explanatory text on the white back wall

Installation of “Design & Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics” at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Photo: Matt Flynn

Three upcoming exhibitions—Foreign Exchange, Sophia Crownfield: Drawn from Nature, and Duro Olowu Selects—utilize the collection almost exclusively to showcase diverse themes such as how migration influences design, under-recognition of women’s role in design, and pattern across cultures and time, respectively.  In addition, two major exhibitions, Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics, which opened in December, and Designing Peace, opening this summer, both provide opportunities to discover innovative design responses either to our current pandemic or to social and economic inequities that are often root causes of conflict and division.  These two exhibitions have and will provide important collecting opportunities, but more vital is how they might equip future designers (and the designer in each of us) with inspiration and knowledge for building a better world with design. This is the legacy of the Hewitt sisters.

 

Exhibitions and dates mentioned in the article:

Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics, December 10, 2021–February 20, 2023

Foreign Exchange, January 22–September 25, 2022

Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt: Designing a Modern Museum, January 28–October 10, 2022

Sophia Crownfield: Drawn from Nature, January 28–July 31, 2022

Duro Olowu Selects, March 18–August 28, 2022

Designing Peace, June 10, 2022–September 4, 2023

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