Has the @CooperHewitt Pen Turned Museums into Libraries? A Visit to the Renovated Cooper-Hewitt Museum

If you haven’t heard about the new Pen at the renovated Cooper-Hewitt, it’s all the buzz in the museum world. It’s the tool that changed a traditional museum into a leading model for the digital age. As it turns out, the pen is just the tip of the disruptive iceberg (you can read more about the shape of that ‘berg here).

In this post I aim to describe my first experience with the Pen and then explore how that experience shaped my time within a new temporary exhibit: Tools: Extending Our Reach.



The Immersion Room often gets the most attention within recent press coverage, a room designed to put “wallcoverings back in context.” You’re not interested in wallpaper, you might say? (I know I did). But there I found myself, eagerly waiting in line to explore a database of design patterns. All thanks to a digital experience accessed through my Pen.

The pen has two ends – one is the stylus, for interacting with the content on touch screens, while the other sends your identity to the screens and the back-end database (so you can later access your data via the Web). In other words, it’s like your memory – one is short term and the other is long term.

The experience begins with the identity end of the stick, so the table knows who I am. Then on the touch table I use the stylus end of the stick to drag patterns into my workspace or create my own from scratch. I hit the Live button and send my pattern to decorate the two walls around me. I can keep modifying my design – flip it, move it, color it – and watch the change kaleidoscope around me and those with me in real time.

A teenager makes a design then stands in front of the projector, wallpapering himself in the process. He hold out his arms and yells, “I’m part of the design.” Immersive indeed.


With the tap on a button, I’ve told the table I want to add my design to my collection. As I exit and walk through the halls I can expand my collection by taping on the printed icon on the label copy of any curated item. Now my collection has two types of objects – ones I have designed and ones designed by others owned by the Museum.

Then I arrive at a table with locations for six people at once. I tap my identity and watch my collection appear before me. I can select any item to first learn about it and then explore a variety of filters to trip through the Museum’s collection. The option appears to design a chair. Or a hat. Or a sculpture. I drag one into my workspace and design my own object. Then I save it to my collection.


Finally, I just doodle. I draw lines. Swirls. Curves. And the table takes my doodle and matches it against similar lines within designs already in their collection, which sends me back to exploring objects within their collection.

The Immersion Room and digital tables in the permanent halls were designed to highlight the Pen and its features. But how might a temporary exhibit leverage the new experiences afforded by the Pen?



The exhibit is called Tools: Extending Our Reach. As the introductory wall copy explains , the exhibit is designed to offer “moments of surprise and connections between seemingly diverse cultures, time periods, and places” with “the works shown here [providing] an opportunity to consider tools as quintessential examples of design, and reveal the fundamental role they play in shaping our lives.” And as a Smithsonian, the exhibit drew from ten of their museums and research centers, allowing for a refreshingly diverse range of objects which, through their designed eclectical-ness, highlight the show’s unifying  : work, measure, observe, survive, communicate and make.

As such, the exhibit is a tightly and beautifully curated selection of objects behind glass with accompanying wall copy (supported by a handful of impressive video displays and cutting edge tech interactive). A perfect opportunity to learn if the Pen could deliver on its promise to help me deeper my engagement with and appreciation of this traditional exhibit design while offering, at the same tine, something wholly new.

A guide asked if I wanted a tour, and I sure did.

We started with a piece of art called Controller of the Universe. It’s an explosion of hand tools, suspended in space (and as if in time). When you walk to the middle, you occupy the epicenter – all the tools are exploding from you. Standing at ground zero felt powerful and exciting. The guide explained its artist says tools can help us but we can never have full control.

The guard insisted on helping me frame my photo, using the pano feature, holding my hand to take the photo (so intimate!) and made sure I was standing just right. Clearly every new exhibit needs one irresistible photo icon.


Then we headed over to a case in the Work section containing a Swiss Army knife (with a USB drive!), the first iPhone and a 1.85 million year old stone core chopper. The guide effectively took us through a variety of questions underscoring what the whole exhibit is all about: Why would we want to have a tool? What would we have to consider when designing it? What makes it a good handheld device?

When we discussed the Swiss army knife, she focused on how it is a multiuse tool. And when we add an app to our iPhobe, aren’t we just designing our own multiuse tool?

“Is this about an app?” a visitor asked who walked up to our tour. “Is there an app I’m suppose to download?”

“She’s the app,” I responded, pointing to the guide. “Just wave your phone at her and she talks.”

By the time we got to the Observe section, I began to read object copy while listening to the guide. I used the Pen to collect objects I could learn more about later, so I could listen to the guide.

Then I went off on my own. (I normally would not be able to recall half of what I saw but, as I first began to write this, through accessing my collection from home, I could recall both the objects I selected, and why). Some of what I then captured with my pen included:

  • A video for an Ultrasound Machine that looked interesting but I wanted to watch later (and perhaps show my family).
  • A mobile app that looked interesting, but it easier to add to my collection than to write it down.
  • I was excited to see included a Stick Navigation Chart from the Marshall Islands that we also have in our own collections at the AMNH.
  • The first Whole Earth Catalog, which I had never seen before in person, which I was delighted to just have a sense that I now “owned,” albeit digitally.
  • A Time Ball, which was just so cool, and I wanted an image to share when talking about it (and I didn’t feel compelled to take my own).

In addition, there were surprises as well. One exhibit took your photo, transformed it into line art, and then drew it with a robot arm into sand. Below are three steps:


During the printing, I noticed what appeared to be a camera at the top of the drawing arm. And, in fact, when I visited my collection online, there was the photo it had taken (which you can view here.)

This has nothing to do with the Pen but was an awesome interactive:

As I walked through the exhibit I found that I was experiencing a museum in a totally new way. When I visit a museum I am often collecting information or inspiration. I know I won’t remember the details, but the feeling will linger in my bones. But now, with the Pen, the museum has also turned into a library or sorts. I am collecting information and inspiration I can explore later, at home. An exhibit to read more about. A video I can watch. An app I can download and explore. Perhaps it was also like reading my weekly Entertainment Weekly magazine, which I leave with a list of movies to watch, songs to check out, books to read. Knowing I could capture my new, momentary interests and follow-up in the future certainly took pressure off my visit – I didn’t have to fit it all in. I wouldn’t want to say it felt like shopping, but it did feel like, with each exhibit I encountered, it was the beginning of my experience, not the end.


Before I left the museum and returned the pen, I had to “save my visit”. Then, using the unique url provided on my entrance receipt, I could go home and check it all out – all the items I collected, all the items I designed, and even a few surprises (like videos associated with the objects, and the sand art of my face).


I don’t want to review the web site as well, but I’d still like to share how HAVING the site changed my museum experience. As soon as I left, I pulled it up and enjoyed revisiting and recalling aspects of my trip, sharing my collection with those made by the coworkers with whom I visited. And the next day, when my son spoke with me about a story he had to write for his Native American-themed class project, I pulled up two similarly-themed objects I just happened to collect during my visit, and used the photos to tell him all I remembered learning about them.

So the associated web sited helped me to revisit my experiences. It let me share it through social media with friends and family. It supported me to use it to pass on knowledge learned to my children.

And, yes, it helped me to write this blog post for all of you.

(You can view my whole official collection here and my personal photos here.)

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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3 Responses to Has the @CooperHewitt Pen Turned Museums into Libraries? A Visit to the Renovated Cooper-Hewitt Museum

  1. Hi Barry, many thanks for this post. I have a question regarding identity. How do you provide the pen with your personal details? Do you create an account? Or could you connect the pen with your social media channels?

    • Barry says:

      Anna, Great question.

      When the pen is first handed to you it is associated with a code. You can see mine here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mooshme/17276744333/in/dateposted-public/
      If I lose the ticket I lose access to my code. The first time I log into the site (when I go home) I can choose to either view the site as is OR create an account on the Cooper-Hewitt web site, and then associate that code’s visit with my account. Once I do, that code no longer works. Instead, within my new Cooper-Hewitt account, I have a “trip” section, one trip associated with each “code” I bring over. So if I return in the future, I would just log in with the code from the new trip and transfer it into my existing account.

      It feels both seamless and, at the same time, scaffolded to meet my appropriate level of interest at each stage.

  2. Pingback: The pen is mightier than the screen? | Museums and the Digital

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