Cooper Union Museum Offers Interactive Experience


Cooper Union Museum is currently offering many interactive exhibits. (Courtesy of Regina Miller/The Fordham Ram)

Regina Miller, Contributing Writer

Located on the corner of E. 91st St. and 5th Ave. in the Upper East Side,  the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum offers several interactive exhibits sure to enlighten visitors on the elements of design. In close proximity to the Met, the Guggenheim and the Museum of the City of New York, this smaller yet distinguished museum houses a menagerie of interesting trinkets and technologies, from 18th-century British ornaments to AI facial recognition. 

The museum was founded by Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt in 1897, then called the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration, to educate the public and inspire students and artists. However, it was not in the current location. Originally the mansion of Andrew Carnegie, the current building was built in 1902 after the arrival of the family’s only child, Margaret. The mansion was named a historical landmark in 1966 and acquired by the Cooper Union in 1969. It was last renovated in 2014 and renamed the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

The museum now has about 10 exhibits spread across three floors. As previously mentioned, it is a smaller museum, so it is not overrun by tourists, and the experience walking through is a positive one. My favorite exhibitions were the AI technology collection and the immersion room, being that they were interactive experiences. 

The AI technology room was eye opening in understanding the level of recognition modern technology has in tracking faces and patterns. In the corner of the room is a chair facing a screen that estimates the visitor’s age, race, gender and emotion after scanning their expression for 30 seconds. While imperfect, it was impressively accurate. It revealed to me that I am 16.5% male, which I guess my doctor had forgotten to mention to me … But aside from the novelty and fun of the processes that go into recognizing faces and emotions, the exhibit considers the underlying danger that technology poses to us. Exploring the ways in which it can promote racial bias and gender conformity, it questions the standards AI technology uses to label people and the reason for labeling them at all. It also warns of AI’s ability to track people and tie them to other information or communities.

The immersion room was the highlight of the museum. There visitors could draw their own design and display it across the room as a wallpaper. The photo opportunities are great here; if you’re not sure where your next Instagram post should be, put this on your list.

Other enjoyable visual exhibits featured pieces on Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, Designing Peace, and Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics. The exhibit on Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt detailed their plans for the museum and the history of the building today. The opening of a museum by two women at the time was relatively unorthodox, but what better place to embrace the future than New York City? The museum’s founders put a lot of thought into the display and use of their curated collections, and the history behind that was interesting to learn. 

Designing Peace and Design and Healing incorporate the role of design into the functionality of our modern world, the former documenting responses to the pandemic and the latter in relation to world peace and justice. They ask the question: how can we design a more equitable world? Overall, I recommend checking out the Cooper Union Museum. Conveniently located across from Central Park, it’s great location for potential day trips in the city.