Previously On View: February 4, 2022 through October 23, 2022

See exhibitions currently on view.

Sarah & Eleanor Hewitt: Designing a Modern Museum chronicles the colorful lives and contributions of the dynamic sisters and explores how they created The Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration. Through archival photography and documents, personal drawings and correspondence, news clippings and ephemera, the exhibition introduces the sisters as educators, collectors, and philanthropists.

In the early 1890s, Sarah and Eleanor began designing a museum for the arts of decoration within The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the public school founded by their grandfather, Peter Cooper, in 1859. Modeled on the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the sisters followed advice from the directors of the Paris museum on how to organize, collect, and exhibit objects for their museum and library.

This exhibition marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of the museum galleries at Cooper Union in 1897, and celebrates the Smithsonian Institution’s 175th year.



About sarah and eleanor hewitt

Sarah (1859–1930) and Eleanor (1864–1924), also known as “Sallie” and “Nellie,” were two of six grandchildren of industrialist and educator Peter Cooper, and daughters of Abram and Sarah Hewitt. Smart, fun-loving, witty, and social, Sarah and Eleanor were competitive athletes, accomplished linguists, prolific writers, amateur actors, skilled musicians, and talented artists. An upbringing that prioritized education and philanthropy shaped the sisters’ creative and spirited personalities. Sarah and Eleanor were strongly influenced by their family and also shared their family’s opposition to granting women the right to vote.

Making a Modern Museum

After years of planning and soliciting wealthy family and friends to donate textiles, furniture, decorative engravings, etchings, books, and plaster casts for study, the Museum for the Arts of Decoration opened to the public on the fourth floor of The Cooper Union in 1897. The sisters called their museum “modern,” and planned the galleries, collections of objects, and reference materials to be freely accessible and open in the evenings so that working artisans could use it. Reference books and scrapbooks filled with visual aids were readily available to broaden the visitor’s education and visual vocabulary. Photographs on view in the exhibition show students actively engaging with the collection, studying, and sketching from works on view.

In their lifetimes, Sarah and Eleanor collected and donated over 50,000 objects (Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection currently has more than 215,000 objects). The collection of design objects they amassed is the foundation of Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection today.

Published Content

Meet the Hewitts

This blog series explores the lives and work of Sarah and Eleanor, including their collecting pursuits, family travels, recreational activities, and social circle. Read more.

Cooper Hewitt Short Stories

Cooper Hewitt Short Stories highlights important acquisitions to the collection, as well as key figures that contributed these gifts and shaped the museum’s development. Read more.

Sarah & Eleanor: The Hewitt Sisters, Founders of the Nation’s Design Museum

This brochure contains Sarah and Eleanor’s journey from childhood, to research in Paris, to the founding of the Museum for the Arts of Decoration. Download the brochure to read Sarah & Eleanor’s story.


Sarah & Eleanor Hewitt: Designing a Modern Museum is made possible with generous support from The Masinter Family Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Cooper Hewitt Master’s Program Fund.


Organized by a cross-departmental Cooper Hewitt team with project coordination by Matthew Kennedy, Cross-Platform Publishing Associate, and concept and research contributions by Margery Masinter, design historian and Cooper Hewitt trustee.

Exhibition design and graphic design by Kelly Sung.

The Hewitt Sisters | Short Stories
Step into 1890s Manhattan and explore the stories of the women who founded Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Hear from curators and historians who have studied the legacy of Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt—their lives, travels, and the making of a museum. 00:01 Introduction by Matthew Kennedy, Publishing Associate, Cooper Hewitt 11:11 “Friends, Careers, Wars, and...
Cooper Hewitt Short Stories: Cooper Union in Black & White
In last month’s Cooper Hewitt Short Story, wallcoverings curator Greg Herringshaw introduced different styles of wallcoverings collected by the Hewitt sisters that are now housed in Cooper Hewitt’s expansive collection. This month, Forrest Pelsue, publishing master’s fellow in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies at Parsons Paris, takes us on a journey to 1939...
Cooper Hewitt Short Stories: Hewitt Sisters Collect Wallcoverings
In last month’s Cooper Hewitt Short Story, we buttoned up with a rousing exploration of the history of the button as illustrated by Cooper Hewitt’s expansive collection. This month, we delve into the uniquely Cooper Hewitt collection of historical and contemporary wallcoverings. Greg Herringshaw, the museum’s curator of wallcoverings, outlines three key areas collected by...
Cooper Hewitt Short Stories: Button, Button, We’ve Got the Button(s)!
In last month’s Short Story, Emily Orr, Cooper Hewitt’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary design, wrote about the history of store window display.  In recognition of National Button Day on November 16, this month’s story celebrates the Cooper Hewitt collection of buttons. Margery Masinter, Trustee, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Sue Shutte, Historian at...
Cooper Hewitt Short Stories: Spotlight on Theater
In last month’s Short Story, Ringwood Historian Sue Shutte cleverly drew parallels between the collections of Ringwood Manor and Cooper Hewitt, giving insight to the Hewitt family’s personal style. In this month’s short story—or more of a collection spotlight—we look at more passions of Sarah and Eleanor and how they emanate through Cooper Hewitt’s collection:...
Horizontal rectangle. Architectural ruins, open to the sky, used as setting for the Nativity group, seen near center, middleground. Rays of light rise from the figure of the Child. Shepherd kneels in foreground. Woman with bundle on her head, at right.
Cooper Hewitt Short Stories: Collecting Before the Alarm Clock Rings
This month in Cooper Hewitt Short Stories, Caitlin Condell, Associate Curator and Head of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, takes us to Italy to discuss one of the most significant contributions of European drawings in the early days of Cooper Hewitt's collection: the addition of the Giovanni Piancastelli collection.
Cooper Hewitt Short Stories: Alexander Drake
Last month in Cooper Hewitt Short Stories, Dr. Gail Davidson wrote about how American drawings by Winslow Homer, Frederic Church, and Thomas Moran entered the museum’s collection. February’s Short Story twitters romance! A passionate collector pursued beautiful homes for birds. Enamored, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt bought his birdcages for their museum. Chirp! #HewittSisters Margery Masinter,...
Cooper Hewitt Short Stories: American Drawings Story
Last month in Cooper Hewitt Short Stories, we explored a world of textiles encapsulated in a generous gift to Cooper Union by J.P. Morgan. In January’s short story, written by Gail Davidson, former Curator and Head of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, the work of three important American artists come together to...