Caroline Baumann: 'The Cooper Hewitt does not to react viscerally. We ask how important will an object be in 20 years' 22.10.18

Written by  Priya Khanchandani

Caroline Baumann by Christopher Churchill

Cooper Hewitt director Caroline Baumann talks to Icon editor Priya Khanchandani about making the museum the most welcoming in Manhattan, and why she brought facial recognition technology to London Design Biennale


Face Values, the US entry to this year’s London Design Biennale, won the Emotional States Medal for the most inspiring interpretation of the 2018 theme. Just before the opening of the Biennale, Icon met up with Caroline Baumann, director of Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian design museum in Manhattan that produced the installation, to talk about what inspired it, as well as to reflect on her tenure, her approach to public engagement and the need to appeal to more diverse audiences.

Priya Khanchandani: Can you tell me about your time at Cooper Hewitt so far?

Caroline Baumann: I’ve been here for 17 years and I always joke that I’m not leaving until people really come to New York City as tourists and say, ‘Guggenheim, Met and Cooper Hewitt’. Now, we’re getting there, slowly but surely. 

Recently, I gave a talk to the Guggenheim board of trustees and I opened by saying, ‘Cooper Hewitt is the friendliest museum on Museum Mile,’ and I was partially kidding but partially not. Yes, it’s the design museum, but it’s also this welcoming spot. Why do I emphasise that? Because it’s important that people don’t look at the building and see this Georgian architecture and say, ‘God! That’s such a daunting place.’

PK: What makes you feel that Cooper Hewitt is now a more welcoming place?

CB: A good example is, my son is three years old and I recently made friends with another mother and gave her tickets to Cooper Hewitt. She called me, absolutely raving. She’s an investment banker and she said, ‘I didn’t know what Cooper Hewitt was. I had no idea. I thought it was just fashion.’ And I’m like, I’m not interested in fashion.

I’m thinking to myself, here’s this woman who’s 40, 45 years old, has never been to Cooper Hewitt and now joined the museum right off the bat after the experience. The key is with people like that, who don’t know about the power of design, to get them to come in and be inspired by what they’re seeing.

PK: Can you tell me about the US entry to London Design Biennale?

CB: Compared to last time, we have had more time to consider: how do we want to represent Cooper Hewitt? How do we want to represent the Smithsonian? I’m really excited about this new work that we’ve commissioned by two different designers working in very different ways – Luke Dubois and Zach Lieberman.

PK: What is it about?

CB: Well, it’s about facial expression and how much can be hidden by a smile. For example, you sit down and it says, ‘Be angry for 15 seconds.’ First of all, that’s hard to do. Then, the system will basically tell you your age, your race, if you are really angry or if you’re concealing something. What this is underscoring is that this kind of facial analysis is happening all of the time and we’re not aware of it; in airports and other public locations.

The designers are playing with facial gestures and basically showing you the percentage of your face that is moving as you’re making these facial movements. Which is fascinating because you don’t realise. For example, I’m looking at you, having been in the gallery for so many hours, and I’m seeing your eyebrows go up as you’re smiling. This actually evaluates all of that and breaks it down in a really fascinating and fun way.

PK: That’s interesting. Who is the installation by? 

CB: We used Matter Architecture, which is a great team out of Brooklyn, to create this stunning sort of flower arrangement of rods that brings it all together.

PK: Was this work that was commissioned especially for London Design Biennale?

CB: Yes, we commissioned both of these designers. One of them, Luke, I met at TED a couple of years ago and he’s just an absolute genius. I sought him out after his talk because I was so moved.

PK: What did he speak about?

CB: He was talking about all the work that he’s doing and data – he’s a complete data nerd. He’s hard to talk to because of that, too. He’s just subsumed in data. I sought him out at TED and he said, referring to the training for the talk, ‘God, these guys were whipping me into shape,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘For months, they are working with you and then, for a few days before the actual TED presentation, they rehearse you and rehearse you. I said, I’m just going to be myself.’ And he was. It was so refreshing.

PK: Can you tell me about your public programme back at Cooper Hewitt in New York?

CB: Right before we closed the museum in 2011, we did this massive show with [jewellery company] Van Cleef & Arpels about the process of creating their gems, so it was called Set in Style. And at the end of that, we were closing the museum for the renovation, but the leadership of Van Cleef came to us and said, ‘Your education team is absolutely stellar. We want to work with you on a more permanent basis, what can we do?’ And we created a programme called Designed By Hand. It involved working with Marimekko, Ralph Rucci and a host of other designers. We had the Campana Brothers working with us on a week of programmes for people of all ages. 

PK: You’ve spearheaded a reboot at a major design museum. I was wondering in light of that what you feel the role of the design museum is in the modern day?

CB: It’s interesting because we completely transformed the visitor experience. We wanted something that would collect data about the different objects, whether they were loan objects or permanent collection objects. 

We arrived at this idea of a stylus. There was one company outside of Barcelona that was making this really not-so-attractive pen that was being used to inventory MRI machines. We went to the CEO of the company and said, ‘Listen, we really want to work with you, we love how this works, but can we redesign it?’ 

Then my second step was going to Beth Comstock, who is the former president of the board at Cooper Hewitt and a senior figure at General Electric, and I said, ‘I don’t have any industrial designers at Cooper Hewitt, can you help us?’ She said ‘Are you kidding? It’d be our honour.’ So she lent us a dozen industrial designers, and literally there was a team of us from Cooper Hewitt, and we would meet with the GE team once every ten days and prototype and 3D-print until we came up with a pen format that really worked well. 

PK: How does the pen work? Can you read off it? Do you use it to interact with your phone?

CB: It looks exactly like a pen. The back part of it is diagonal and has an icon on it. Whenever you see that icon throughout the museum, you can just press the pen against it and information [about the object] is downloaded to your account. When you get back to your home or your hotel, you can put in a code from your ticket and see how you walked through the museum. 

PK: It enables you to track what you saw as opposed having to take loads of photographs? 

CB: Right. Next, we’ve got to make it more accessible. When we created the stylus, we were thinking about people in wheelchairs and that’s worked really well, but now we are looking at ways to renew it. As of a few weeks ago, I think there were 17 million objects that had been downloaded. 

ICON: In the UK there’s been a trend in recent years for museums to collect contemporary objects pegged to current affairs. You must have heard about the Trump balloon, which was jumped on by a museum as an acquisition. What is Cooper Hewitt’s take on that sort of collecting?

CB: We’re really careful not to react too viscerally and too quickly, to make sure these objects are really important to be in the collection of America’s design museum. Rather than just saying, ‘Oh this is important because it happened,’ we ask, ‘How important will that be 20 years from now?’ 

PK: How is your view of audiences changing?

CB: Now we are looking at diversity and how we can bring in diverse audiences from across the world. We’re starting obviously in the New York City area, and for every museum on Museum Mile, the percentages are abysmal. We have a diversity committee at Cooper Hewitt, both a staff-led one and one made up of invited folks. It’s very much on our radar and core to our brand new strategic plan. 

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