Cooper Hewitt's Pen: Hands-On Design You Can Take Home With You
Cooper Hewitt, America’s only museum dedicated exclusively to historic and contemporary design, has reopened after a three-year renovation. Among its new additions is The Pen, a revolutionary, high-tech way for visitors to learn about design by becoming designers themselves.
Naturally, my husband (an MIT-trained engineer), my 15-year-old (budding architect), my 11-year-old (computer geek), my eight-year-old (she likes pretty things) and I (procurer of tickets) were there the weekend The Pen debuted to check it out.
For the first half-hour of our visit, The Pen wasn't working. Or, rather, it was presumably working, but the scanner that connected the actual object to a unique barcode on our tickets was not. We were told to come back later, and so passed the time by just wandering around the first floor of the museum. Except for a multi-colored wall projection that moved when you moved, my younger two were kind of “meh" about the whole thing. However, everything changed after we got our working Pens.
Suddenly, the kids were wildly enthusiastic, running from exhibit to exhibit, eager to put their Pens on the designated X and take a virtual picture. The Pen works like a memory stick, recording and syncing everything you do to a URL that’s exclusive to your ticket.
Our first stop was The Process Lab, developed in conjunction with educators specifically for K-12 students. There, kids try to combine two randomly selected objects into something new and then share the results. We came up with a wallet that was also a toothbrush (it's still in the development stages). Kids can also experiment with light, texture and space. The biggest hit was an interactive table, where you not only use The Pen to sketch new concepts in furniture, clothing and transportation, but can then watch your two-dimensional sketch get rendered in 3D. There is also the option to save your creations to look over later on your home computer. The exhibit really encourages kids to think about how they might improve existing objects. My daughter invented a collapsible bunk bed that can be used in camping tents (should you ever need one).
We then made our way up to the third floor, home to the Tools: Extending Our Reach display. My daughter was mesmerized by the prototype of a Braille typewriter, while my middle child was more enamored of the futuristic apparatus that allowed him to virtually lift a ball without actually touching it.
As for my oldest, he preferred the second floor’s collection of scaled models depicting renderings of ornate 18th through 20th-century staircases and other architectural features. I, personally, loved the dress that could fold flat for easy storage.
However, the space that ultimately got everyone in my family most excited was the Immersion Room. Visitors use their Pen to create original wallpaper designs on a table at the center of the room, which then instantly appear on the surrounding walls. (You can also browse the museum’s classic wall-covering collection, and see it the way it was meant to be seen—on a wall, rather than a mere swatch.)
If I have one caveat about The Pen experience, it’s that just like when you take kids to an event where they have to collect stickers or stamps at a series of stops in order to win a prize, the focus shifts from looking at the exhibitions to merely taking digital pictures of them. At times, my brood just rushed from spot to spot, clicking on the designated X without stopping to really consider what was in front of them.
At the end of your visit, you drop your Pen off at a Plexiglas cube by the door, where a docent downloads your images and resets The Pen for subsequent use. As we were leaving, my 11-year-old sighed, “I wish all of life were interactive.” I fear he missed the point that it already is.
When we got home, the kids were excited to view their images online, though they were disappointed to discover that you can’t continue working on what you started. The designs are fixed. You can, however, review and take a closer look at details you might have missed on the first go-around, when you were too busy running around, having the time of your life.
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is located at 2 East 91st Street near Fifth Avenue. It's open weekdays and Sundays 10am-6pm and Saturdays 10am-9pm. Admission: $18 for adults, $12 for seniors, $9 for students and free for children under 18 (save $2 a ticket by buying online). Note: Saturdays 6-9pm are Pay What You Wish but The Pen will not be available during those hours in March.