Cooper Hewitt Interaction Lab Presents: Activating Smithsonian Open Access

Grid of open access images featuring objects from Smithsonian Collections


Art Clock

A data visualization tool that offers users a novel way to browse and learn about Smithsonian Open Access collections by analyzing visual characteristics of the dataset and compiling images into various configurations of clock interfaces.

TEAM: Zander Brimijoin, Daniel Scheibel, Greg Schomburg, Erin Stowell,  Lisa Walters, Jiwon Ham


A web based acoustic VR experience that reveals the acoustic attributes of 3D objects in the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections. Though created primarily for the blind and low vision community, the platform offers another way for all people to experience 3D objects.

TEAM: John Roach,  Zhizhen (Jerry) Tan, Thomas Tajo


This experience will render 2D images of butterflies from Smithsonian Open Access collections into 3D format that invites users to learn more, while offering a delightful augmented reality interaction.

TEAM: Jonathan Lee, Miriam Langer, Rianne Trujillo, Lauren Addario

Doorways into Open Access

Marrying physical and digital space, Doorways connects users to augmented reality experiences with Open Access collections out in the world featuring specific historical periods or events.

TEAM: Abigail Honor, Jean-Pierre Dufresne, Angelo Calilap, Gevorg Manukyan, Yan Vizinberg, Chris Cooper and Alex Robete

Loot Merch

Democratize access to art and inspire conversations about ownership and digital repatriation by transforming 2D images of Open Access African art objects into 3D assets to be used in social AR experiences and other open-source projects.

TEAM: Mayowa Tomori, Olu Gbadegbo, and Olivia Cueva


A collaborative VR game where users search for objects selected from the Smithsonian’s Open Access dataset within an immersive environment and learn more about each object and its history.

TEAM: Jackie Lee, Ph.D, Yen-Ling Kuo, Caitlin Krause

Writing with Open Access

As users write in this web-based creative tool, it identifies keywords in the writing,  and dynamically generates visual narratives from  Smithsonian Open Access collections to accompany essays, research, poetry and more.

TEAM: Jono Brandel, Sunny Oh, Hiroaki Yamane

Program Overview

The Activating Smithsonian Open Access Challenge (ASOA) from Cooper Hewitt’s Interaction Lab aims to support creative technology teams in designing engaging interactive experiences with Smithsonian Open Access collections for people all over the globe. Made possible by Verizon 5G Labs, this open call for proposals sought to stimulate new ideas for inspiring digital interactions with over 3 million 2D and 3D objects in the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections, all available under a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license for download, re-use, alteration, and even commercialization.

From these proposals, finalists were selected to receive $10,000 to develop their ideas into functioning prototypes to be presented and used by the public. Creators will own all intellectual property they create in ASOA, subject to the Smithsonian’s license as set forth in the ASOA Participation Rules and Guidelines.

The Creative Brief

The Interaction Lab is seeking software tools and applications that offer exciting, meaningful interactions with some of the 3 million 2D and 3D collections assets in the Smithsonian’s Open Access dataset. Each commissioned project must include an audience objective and should offer wide access, with regard to technology platform and across a wide spectrum of ability.

Selected participants will contract with the Smithsonian to provide a prototype based on the details of their winning entry. Over a 10 week build period, teams will receive mentorship from Smithsonian, Verizon, and industry leaders, and participate in mandatory work-in-progress reviews to ensure projects are on track to meet deadlines. At the end of the build period, once prototypes meet any Smithsonian requirements specified during that time, and are functional and available for end users, the finalists will present their work in virtual programs with the public, and internally for Smithsonian and Verizon staff.

The Lab is specifically interested in commissioning tools that focus on 2D image assets from Cooper Hewitt’s Open Access collections, or 2D and 3D assets from across the Smithsonian’s wider collections. Because people can interact with collections objects in myriad ways, the intent is not to be limiting in defining the types of interactions you might propose. Applicants are encouraged to use as much imagination as possible. It is critical, however, that your proposed tool or application offers a clear and meaningful interaction with Smithsonian collections, ideally different from the kinds of passive “looking” experiences common to museums, and often replicated in digital experiences created by museums.


Analyze and synthesize data from collections to draw conclusions or offer insights about the objects contained therein


Devise new modes of digital display for collections that offer compelling experiences in two- and three-dimensions, e.g. augmented reality, animation


Create context around objects by placing them in new environments


Tools that let users remix/alter objects, and/or considers objects as raw materials to build other kinds of interactions


Creates focused narratives around an individual object or series of objects.


Increase the accessibility of Open Access collections for people with various physical and cognitive abilities. For example, integrating audio and visual descriptions; building multimodal interactions; or creating teaching tools with collections to engage those who benefit from different modalities


Expand and improve upon the Smithsonian’s open-source collection of web components, called Voyager. Voyager Story enables curators and other subject matter experts to create educational experiences around 3D objects by adding additional text, images, and tours. Voyager Explorer is a fully-featured 3D web viewer that enables end users to interact with the experiences crafted in Voyager Story. Though these components have recently been expanded to support advanced features like texture painting and augmented reality, so many more exciting interactions are possible! Now’s the time to let your imagination run loose. Examples might be things like: accessibility features, visual filters, new interaction paradigms, or anything else you can dream up!


Submissions for ASOA are now closed.

With this Open Call, the Interaction Lab hoped to engage individuals and teams of all sizes already working with museum and cultural collections, as well as those in adjacent fields and/or currently enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs. ASOA proposals were accepted via email in PDF format over a four week submission period. Submitters were required to adhere to the ASOA Participation Rules and Guidelines.

To ensure participants had access to as much information as possible, the ASOA Team conducted an online information session, and created an FAQ.

Accessibility and Inclusive Design Considerations

It is important that technologies we offer are built to be accessible to as many people as possible across a wide spectrum of physical and cognitive ability. However, you’re not expected to be accessible technology experts. As such, the Interaction Lab will provide support in this area. You are expected, though, to consider how people with varying abilities might interact with your creations. For example, “How would someone unable to see enjoy your work?” or “How might your project use multiple sensory modalities to enrich the experience for everyone?” This process often leads to more questions than answers, which is why you will have access to experts in accessibility and inclusive design as part of the mentorship throughout the project.

Technology Considerations

For developer access to the Smithsonian’s Open Access API, please refer to our developer tools page, where you’ll find relevant links and information. If you’re interested in getting started with Voyager, please refer to the repository and documentation on GitHub. Please note that while not required, open-source projects are preferred as the Smithsonian may be able to more easily incorporate them into our long-term software strategy in the future.

Privacy Compliance and Review

Any proposal that includes a plan for end users to share personally identifying information (PII), such as name, email, or address, will be subject to additional review by the Smithsonian Privacy Office. This process will require additional time and effort from project teams and could present significant challenges to timely delivery. If your proposal includes this kind of provision and you are awarded a commission, you must agree to participate in all compliance activities and remain open to the possibility of changing your plans, based on the Smithsonian’s requirements. It would be simplest for all involved to avoid proposing a project that would require the collection of PII unless absolutely integral to the interaction. Any collection of information from minors, specifically under the age of 13, poses substantial additional limitations.

Judging Panel

Selection Criteria

Creativity and impact of the interaction
Does this project propose an unexpected or exciting use of Open Access collections beyond a standard “looking” experience? Is the core interaction designed to have a meaningful impact on the audience?

Quality and coherence of user goals and objectives
Does the proposed project lay out clear user goals? Are those goals coherent with the proposed interaction?

Access and accessibility
Does the proposed project expand access to Smithsonian collections with regard to ability, economic barriers or consider other social inequities? Does it increase access to learning?

Scope and feasibility
Have you proposed a plan to develop a prototype that is achievable within a 10-week build period?

Team skills
Is the team composed of people with appropriate skills and experience to build a working prototype of the proposed project within the program timeframe?

Background Information


The Interaction Lab is a research and development program embedded in Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The Lab is focused on reimagining Cooper Hewitt’s audience experience, across digital, physical, and human interactions. Since its Fall 2019 launch, the Lab has injected new ideas into the museum’s work through internal workshopping and strategy, an extremely successful public program series merging interactive design and museum practice, and a commissioning program that engages the design community as creative collaborators in creating the next wave of the Cooper Hewitt experience.


Since the Smithsonian’s founding in 1846, its mission has been for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithsonian Open Access empowers people everywhere to participate in that mission in new and innovative ways. Smithsonian Open Access is the largest multidisciplinary cultural dataset containing over 3 million 2D and 3D images from its 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo. These images carry the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, which means they are free of copyright and makes them available to the public for any kind of re-use. Learn more from our Open Access FAQ.


Commissioning is one way the Interaction Lab invites creative and technology communities to generate ideas for tools and experiences that can be introduced at the museum. Rather than making a big bet on one project, the Lab invests in multiple little bets to put a range of ideas in the hands of users to assess which ideas show the most promise to develop and launch at scale.

Rather than commissioning artistic experiments for their own sake, the Lab is interested in expanding access to deep engagement with museum collections for people of many abilities and interests worldwide; not only to see what creators can do with Open Access collections, but also what kinds of experimental platforms and applications they can create for larger audiences to play, learn, and discover.