Arts Opinion: Is the future of history digital?

Located in Manhattan, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum is devoted entirely to design. After being closed for three years for renovations, the Cooper Hewitt is reopening its doors to introduce a world where the physical and the digital come together.

A variety of new exhibits that provide an interactive experience for the public have been introduced to the museum. One of the most notable features is the introduction of the Pen, a high-tech tool that allows visitors to gather information from around the museum and interact with some of the exhibits.

Upon entering, visitors will be given the Pen. To collect information, visitors simply touch the Pen to any object label, thereby allowing the device to store the object’s information. Visitors can then touch the Pen to interactive tables, allowing for a closer examination of the objects and access to additional information.

Another high-tech feature of the renovated museum is the Immersion Room, where visitors will have the chance to create their own wallpapers. Pen users will be able to create a design and have it projected on the walls of the room, or simply choose from the museum’s collection of wall coverings to study.

At the end of each visit, the information guests collect becomes available online through a unique web address printed on their admission ticket.

So what does the introduction of this powerful new form of digital engagement mean for the future of museums? There is a strong possibility that other major museums will follow suit, introducing their own interactive exhibits. If this happens, the historical traditions of museums may gradually begin to disappear.

Museums are celebrated for giving the public the opportunity to study artifacts and other objects up close, in real life and real time. By using the Pen to examine an object, visitors deny the essential purpose of a museum. Rather than studying an object itself, people are studying a screen—something that requires little to no imagination and that they are probably doing more or less constantly as it is. Digital enhancements have the potential to strip museums of the magic as well as the mystery of their contents.

It is important to remember, however, what type of museum the Cooper Hewitt is. The museum explores a constantly evolving aesthetic. Museum founders Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt intended for the museum to be a working laboratory––a place for individuals to easily and creatively work and learn.

Keeping this in mind, Cooper Hewitt successfully upholds its intention to provide visitors with an interactive learning experience. Because it is a design museum, the digital engagement works well to its advantage.

Of course, museums are businesses and always looking for new ways to attract visitors. If Cooper Hewitt’s renovations become popular with the general public, it is very possible that other museums will adopt some of the same interactive technologies. A digital museum model could be replacing the old museum model—one that had a lot of educational and cultural merit the way it was.