How a Digital Pen is Turning a Museum into a Library

Right now, in New York City, a digital pen is turning a museum into a library — a 21st century library, that is. And, its potential impact across civic and cultural spaces offers considerable lessons for those interested in participatory and digital learning and the future of museums.

If, like me, you work in a museum you’ve probably already guessed what I am talking about, as it’s all the buzz: the newly renovated Cooper-Hewitt’s Pen. The Cooper-Hewitt is the Smithsonian’s design museum located in NYC within the stately Andrew Carnegie Mansion. After a six-year renovation project, the museum re-opened its doors in December, returning public access to its wonderful collection of “historic and contemporary design.” While the collections on display might not have changed in any significant way, the museum offered its new visitors a radical new way to experience it: through a digital pen. pen-2

The pen, which is given to all visitors with the price of entry, has two ends — one is the stylus, for interacting with the content on touch screens, while the other connects with icons on exhibit copy (see above image) and the aforementioned touch screens to send your identity and activity into a back-end database (why exactly I will later explain).

The most popular room in the museum is all about wallpaper (which, if anything else, is a testament to how effectively this digital tool succeeds in igniting passion around content usually unaccessible to the uninitiated). Called the Immersion Room, it lives up to its name, where I was equally immersed in visually exploring the Museum’s visual database of wallcoverings as I was creating my own and then “throwing” it onto the digital walls around me.

When I was there, I watched a teenager make a design then stand in front of the screen’s projector, wallpapering himself in the process. He held out his arms and yelled, “I’m part of the design.” Immersive indeed.

With the tap of 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 expand my collection by tapping 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.

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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.

After an hour exploring the exhibits, I had collected many objects from the Museum’s collection, including:

  • 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 was easier to add to my collection than to write down its name.
  • 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, and 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 out my phone camera).

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, 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).

There’s little surprise that a techie like me would enjoy this new take on experiencing a museum. But, what about the average visitor? I just happened to write this just a few days after the museum released stats to celebrate the 100th day of the pen in action. So far, the Pen has been given to 40,846 visitors (93% of all eligible visitors so far), who collected 889,156 objects and saved 35,138 designs. Within three days of returning home, just over 25% of ticketed visitors went to their personalized web site containing their collections and designs (with a third not just visiting but then creating an account to permanently store their collection).

What institution wouldn’t want a quarter of their in-person visitors to return within days for a virtual visit? It’s a remarkable achievement. And, how did they do it? They used digital tools and digital media to turn a passive, consuming experience that relied heavily on prior knowledge into a participatory, collaborative experience accessible to people of all ages, backgrounds, and digital-comfort levels.

Photos by Barry Joseph