Cooper Hewitt Interaction Lab Presents: Activating Smithsonian Open Access

Grid of open access images featuring objects from Smithsonian Collections

The Interaction Lab is seeking proposals for creative tools and applications

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 seeks 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, up to six finalists will receive $10,000 to develop their ideas into functioning prototypes to be presented and used by the public. A significant goal of the program is to identify compelling projects that the Interaction Lab might explore for wider use in the future. 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.

Submissions are now closed.


Thank you to all who attended the Interaction Lab’s online information session. For more information on sample Open Access Projects and resources, please refer to this presentation. Please follow up with any questions by email at

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!

Submitting your proposal

Submissions for ASOA are now closed.

With this Open Call, the Interaction Lab hopes 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. All participants are responsible for understanding and complying with the submission structure set forth herein and all ASOA Participation Rules and Guidelines.

A complete proposal must contain the following elements.

  • Idea description – 300 words
  • What kinds of interactions does your proposed tool offer? – 200 words
  • Describe user outcomes, experiential, and/or learning objectives for your proposed tool – 150 words
  • Who comprises the team and what are your relevant skills and experience? – 250 words
  • High-level project plan for 10-week build period – one page
  • Additional materials to help explain your idea, like sketches or diagrams – max two pages
  • Relevant examples of previous work – max five pages
  • Cover page including contact information for the individual submitting the proposal

Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis and we will announce the six finalists no later than March 15, 2021. Please submit questions to 

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.