Cooper Hewitt Interaction Lab Presents: Activating Smithsonian Open Access

A collage that shows images of all seven Activating Smithsonian Open Access prototypes

Introducing the ASOA Prototypes!

The Interaction Lab is thrilled to present seven prototypes generated during the Activating Smithsonian Open Access program. To access the prototypes, please click the purple “Try It” button next to each, and don’t forget to share your feedback using the grey “Share Feedback” button.

Art Clock

Art Clock is the only gallery that uses artwork to tell time. The gallery is created by users scouring the Smithsonian Open Access catalog for art that could be interpreted as an analog clock face. Our goal is to use collective brain power to find and display a uniquely appropriate image for every minute of a day. The result is a novel way of curating content and a playful way of bringing art to daily life, one minute at a time.


Red Paper Heart is an award winning art studio specializing in interactive experiences that inspire joy and wonder.  The team is composed of designers, creative coders, animators, producers, engineers and developers collaborating to create bold work that explores the possibilities of experiential art and design.

TEAM MEMBERS: Zander Brimijoin — Creative Director; Daniel Scheibel — Technical Director; Lisa Walters — Executive Producer; Greg Schomburg — Lead Developer; Erin Stowell —  Head of Production; Jiwon Ham — Lead Designer

Art Echo

Art Echo is a web-based virtual reality experience that reveals the acoustic attributes of 3D objects in the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections while moving through periods of the history of Earth and some of its inhabitants. In this virtual gallery people can experience the objects and their stories through imagery, sound, and simulated echolocation based on the teachings of Thomas Tajo, a blind echolocation user and teacher.

Art Echo is available on desktop only. For the best experience, please use either Chrome or Firefox. Safari is not supported at this time. For hearing people, we advise wearing headphones.

TEAM MEMBERS: Zhizhen (Jerry) Tan — Project Lead, Designer; Thomas Tajo — Echolocation Advisor; John Roach — Advisor, Sound Designer; Eraince Wang — Designer, Developer; Lan Zhang — Designer, Developer; Benny Zhang — 3D Artist


In the center of the image is a medium-skin toned hand holding a cell phone. The cell phone displays two butterflies superimposed against the flower garden in the background of the image. One of the butterflies is bright blue with a slight iridescent quality, and the smaller one, a Monarch, contains various shades of orange and yellow with black veining on the wings.

ButtARfly brings butterflies from the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections to life on your screen. Browse and learn about butterfly species, add them to your virtual shadow box, and release them into an augmented reality experience for desktop and mobile. In addition to its visual elements, ButtARfly offers a sound signature for each butterfly specimen turning your shadow box into a playable virtual instrument and adding a layer of sound to the augmented reality experience.

ABOUT THE TEAM: New Mexico’s Center for Cultural Technology (CCT) is an educational, community engagement, and R&D partnership between the Department of Media Arts & Technology at New Mexico Highlands University and the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.

TEAM MEMBERS: Jonathan Lee — Project Lead, Animation Programmer; Rianne Trujillo — Web Developer; Lauren Addario — Audio Advisor and Content Developer; Miriam Langer — Content Developer

Casting Memories by Loot Merch

Casting Memories confronts the impact and legacy of looted art and white supremacy in museums through the perspective and intimate experience of a Nigerian artist / technologist / scammer learning about their stolen history and identity through the Benin Bronzes in the Smithsonian collections. To illustrate how creativity can be used to transform, reclaim and remix painful memories into liberative, new media, the project also presents a series of open-source, downloadable 3D art objects inspired by the collection.

TEAM MEMBERS: Mayowa Tomori — Project Lead; Michael Runge — 3D Artist; Rita Troyer — Web Designer; Olivia Cueva — 3D Researcher; and Olu Gbadebo — Machine Learning Researcher

Doorways into Open Access

Doorways into Open Access is an augmented reality experience that transports audiences back a century to Paris of “La Belle Epoque,” a golden era that began in the early 1870s and lasted through the beginning of WWI in 1914. Downloading the app opens a virtual portal to 1912, inviting travelers to learn about artifacts of the time drawn from the Smithsonian’s Open Access collection in a gorgeous virtual space. Download the poster to share Doorways into Open Access with your community.

ABOUT THE TEAM: Lorem Ipsum is an experience design agency integrating physical and digital design to deliver dynamic and connected experiences.

TEAM MEMBERS: Abigail Honor — Partner; Jean-Pierre Dufresne — Head of Marketing; Angelo Calilap — Creative Director; Gevorg Manukyan — Sr. Engineering Manager; Alex Robete — Art Director; Bruce Chilton — Editor/Animator; Jackie Contreras — Post Production Supervisor; Yan Vizinberg — Partner; Chris Cooper — Partner; Anton Urkin — 3D Animator

ScienceVR Treasure Hunt: Space Mission

A moonscape against a black sky with the sun and earth in the upper left and right of the image. In the foreground are six astronauts in white spacesuits, who are in various poses, mostly standing, one sitting. One of the six is climbing down from the Apollo 11 moon lander onto the moon surface. The astronauts names, "Neil, Chloe, Li, Jayden, Maria, and Ed" float above their heads.

Treasure Hunt: Space Mission is a multiplayer treasure hunt game that offers players an interactive, social learning experience utilizing artifacts from the Smithsonian’s Open Access collections. Players discover, authenticate, and collect digital artifacts to score points and win the game, while learning from each other in the process.

ABOUT THE TEAM: ScienceVR creates a delightful knowledge metaverse for learning science and history.

TEAM MEMBERS: Jackie Lee, Ph.D — Project Lead Developer/Designer; Yen-Ling Kuo — Developer; Caitlin Krause — Creative Producer, Educator; William Hsia — Audio Design Intern; Edison Lee — 3D Avatar Development Intern

Writing with Open Access

Thanks to Writing with Open Access, you can explore the Smithsonian’s vast Open Access collections guided by your thoughts. Write something. Wait a moment, and a collage of related images will appear. Whether for creative inspiration, scholarly research, or to tackle writer’s block, this novel, web-based interface helps generate new ideas, and supports ten languages.

TEAM MEMBERS: Jono Brandel — Project Lead; Sunny Oh — Designer; Hiroaki Yamane — Creative Technologist

Program Overview

The Activating Smithsonian Open Access Challenge (ASOA) from Cooper Hewitt’s Interaction Lab supported 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, seven finalists were selected to receive $10,000 to develop their ideas into functioning prototypes to be presented and used by the public, while creators will own all intellectual property they create in ASOA.

The Creative Brief

The Interaction Lab sought software tools and applications offering 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 contracted with the Smithsonian to provide a prototype based on the details of their winning entry. Over a 10 week build period, teams received mentorship from Smithsonian, Verizon, and industry leaders, and participated in mandatory work-in-progress reviews to ensure projects are on track to meet deadlines. At the end of the build period, the finalists presented their work in virtual programs with the public, and internally for Smithsonian and Verizon staff.

The Lab was 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 was not to be limiting in defining the types of interactions teams proposed. Applicants were encouraged to use as much imagination as possible. It is critical, however, that all proposed tools or applications offer 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.