The Smithsonian Design Museum Digitizes 200,000 Objects, Giving You Access to 3,000 Years of Design Innovation & History

John Lennon poster by Richard Avedon

When we think of design, each of us thinks of it in our own way, focusing on our own interests: illustration, fashion, architecture, interfaces, manufacturing, or any of a vast number of sub-disciplines besides. Those of us who have paid a visit to Cooper Hewitt, also known as the Smithsonian Design Museum, have a sense of just how much human innovation, and even human history, that term can encompass. Now, thanks to an ambitious digitization project that has so far put 200,000 items (or 92 percent of the museum's collection) online, you can experience that realization virtually.

Concept car designed by William McBride

The video below explains the system, an impressive feat of design in and of itself, with which Cooper Hewitt made this possible. "In collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the mass digitization project transformed a physical object (2-D or 3-D) from the shelf to a virtual object in one continuous process," says its about page. "At its peak, the project had four photographic set ups in simultaneous operation, allowing each to handle a certain size, range and type of object, from minute buttons to large posters and furniture. A key to the project’s success was having a completely barcoded collection, which dramatically increased efficiency and allowed all object information to be automatically linked to each image."

Given that the items in Cooper Hewitt's collection come from all across a 3000-year slice of history, you'll need an exploration strategy or two. Have a look at the collection highlights page and you'll find curated sections housing the items pictured here, including psychedelic posters, designs for automobiles, architect's eye, and designs for the Olympics — and that's just some of the relatively recent stuff. Hit the random button instead and you may find yourself beholding, in high resolution, anything from a dragonish fragment of a panel ornament from 18th-century France to a late 19th-century collar to a Swedish vase from the 1980s.

Mexico 68 designed by Lance Wyman

Cooper Hewitt has also begun integrating its online and offline experiences, having installed a version of its collection browser on tables in its physical galleries. There visitors can "select items from the 'object river' that flows down the center of each table" about which to learn more, as well as use a "new interactive Pen" that "further enhances the visitor experience with the ability to “collect” and “save” information, as well as create original designs on the tables." So no matter how much time you spend with Cooper Hewitt's online collection — and you could potentially spend a great deal — you might, should you find yourself on Manhattan's Museum Mile, consider stopping into the museum to see how physical and digital design can work together. Enter the Cooper Hewitt's online collection here.

Temple of Curiosity by Etienne-Louis Boullée

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Animated Look at Vladimir Nabokov’s Passion for Butterfly Collecting: “Literature & Butterflies Are the Two Sweetest Passions Known to Man”

Literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man. - Vladimir Nabokov

A 1941 family road trip along Route 66 planted the seeds for Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita.

It also enriched the American Museum of Natural History’s butterfly collection by some 300 North American specimens.

The author, an avid amateur lepidopterist, indulged his hobby along the way, depositing butterflies collected on this and other trips in glassine envelopes labeled with the name of the towns where the creatures encountered his net. Upon his return, he decided to donate most of his haul to the museum’s Lepidoptera collection, where he was as an eager volunteer.

Years later, Suzanne Rab Green, a Tiger Moth specialist and assistant curator at the museum, uncovered Nabokov’s specimens packed in a vintage White Owl cigar box.

Recognizing that this collection had literary value as well as scientific, Green decided to sort it by location rather than species, preserving the carefully hand-lettered envelopes along with the fragile wings and thoraxes.

Using Google Earth, she retraced Nabokov’s 3-week journey for the museum’s Shelf Life series, digitally pinning his finds alongside vintage postcards of Gettysburg, Yosemite National Park, and the Grande Tourist Lodge in Dallas, Texas—all fertile collection sites, at least in 1941.

Butterflies remained a lifelong obsession for the author. He served for six years as curator of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology’s Lepidoptera wing and developed an evolutionary theory related to his study of the Polyommatus blues Green mentions in the 360° video above. (Be aware, the 360° feature will not work in Safari).

He also wooed his wife, Vera, by making charming and keenly observed drawings of butterflies for her.

An avowed enemy of symbols and allegory, Nabokov prevented butterflies from occupying too significant a role in his fictional oeuvre, though he gushed unabashedly in his memoir, Speak, Memory:

Let me also evoke the hawkmoths, the jets of my boyhood! Colors would die a long death on June evenings. The lilac shrubs in full bloom before which I stood, net in hand, displayed clusters of a fluffy gray in the dark—the ghost of purple. A moist young moon hung above the mist of a neighboring meadow. In many a garden have I stood thus in later years—in Athens, Antibes, Atlanta—but never have I waited with such a keen desire as before those darkening lilacs. And suddenly it would come, the low buzz passing from flower to flower, the vibrational halo around the streamlined body of an olive and pink Hummingbird moth poised in the air above the corolla into which it had dipped its long tongue…. Through the gusty blackness, one’s lantern would illumine the stickily glistening furrows of the bark and two or three large moths upon it imbibing the sweets, their nervous wings half open butterfly fashion, the lower ones exhibiting their incredible crimson silk from beneath the lichen-gray primaries. “Catocala adultera!” I would triumphantly shriek in the direction of the lighted windows of the house as I stumbled home to show my captures to my father.

Despite the author’s stated distaste for overt symbolism, a few butterflies did manage to flutter onto the pages of his best known work, resulting in at least one thesis papers that makes a case for Lolita as butterfly—irresistible, beautiful, easily ensnared….

Did I ever mention that her bare arm bore the 8 of vaccination? That I loved her hopelessly? That she was only fourteen? An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.

- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955

Track Nabokov's cross-country butterfly collecting trip, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The British Museum Creates 3D Models of the Rosetta Stone & 200+ Other Historic Artifacts: Download or View in Virtual Reality

A quick fyi: Back in 2015, The British Museum gave the world online access to the Rosetta Stone, along with 4,700 other artifacts in the great London museum. But that access was only in 2D.

Now they've upped the ante and published a 3D model of the Rosetta Stone and 200+ other essential items in the museum's collections. "This scan was part of our larger attempt to capture as many of our iconic pieces from the collection — and indeed the unseen in store objects — and make them available for people to view in 3D or in more tactile forms,” Daniel Pett, a British Museum adviser told Digital Trends.

Other 3D models you might want to check out include the granite head of Amenemhat III, a portrait bust of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, and a statue of Roy, High Priest of Amun.

Note: If you put your mouse on the objects and swivel on your trackpad, you can see different sides of the artifacts. Created with a company called Sketchfab, the 3D models are all available to download. You can also see them in virtual reality. (Look for the little "View in VR" icon at the bottom of each image.)

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via Hyperallergic

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art Makes 140,000+ Artistic Images from Its Collections Available on

As an Open Culture reader, you might already know the Internet Archive, often simply called "," as an ever expanding trove of wonders, freely offering everything from political TV ads to vintage cookbooks to Grateful Dead concert recordings to the history of the internet itself. You might also know the Metropolitan Museum of Art as not just a building on Fifth Avenue, but a leading digital cultural institution, one willing and able to make hundreds of art books available to download and hundreds of thousands of fine-art images usable and remixable under a Creative Commons license.

Now, the Internet Archive and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have teamed up to bring you a collection of over 140,000 art images gathered by the latter and organized and hosted by the former.

Most every digital vault in the Internet Archive offers a cultural and historical journey within, but the collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers an especially deep one, ranging historically from early 19th-century India (The Pleasures of the Hunt at the top of the post) to midcentury New York (the photo of the mighty locomotive before the entrance to the 1939 World's Fair above) and, in either direction, well beyond.

Culturally speaking, you can also find in the Met's collection in the Internet Archive everything from from Japanese interpretations of French photography (the woodblock print French Photographer above) to the Belgian interpretation of Anglo-American cinema (the poster design for Charlie Chaplin's Play Day below). You can dial in on your zone of interest by using the "Topics & Subjects," whose hundreds of filterable options include, to name just a few, such categories as Asia, woodfragmentsLondon, folios, and underwear.

The collection also contains works of the masters, such as Vincent van Gogh's 1887 Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (as well as its obverse, 1885's The Potato Peeler), and some of the world's great vistas, including Francesco Guardi's 1765 rendering of Venice from the Bacino di San Marco. If you'd like to see what in the collection has drawn the attention of most of its browsers so far, sort it by view count: those at work should beware that nudes and other erotically charged artworks predictably dominate the rankings, but they do it alongside Naruto Whirlpool, the Philosopher's Stone, and Albert Einstein. Human interest, like human creativity, always has a surprise or two in store.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Museum of Failure: A New Swedish Museum Showcases Harley-Davidson Perfume, Colgate Beef Lasagne, Google Glass & Other Failed Products

Here, in Silicon Valley, failure isn't always failure. At least according to the local mythology, it's something to be embraced, accepted, even celebrated. "Fail fast, fail often," they say. And eventually you'll learn enough to achieve real success.

On June 7th, the Museum of Failure will open in Helsingborg, Sweden. There you'll find the remains of failed innovation. Google Glass, the Sony Betamax, the Apple Newton, Nokia's N-gage--they're all there. Ditto a bottle of Harley-Davidson Perfume, Coca-Cola BlāK (aka coffee-flavored coke), and a Colgate Beef Lasagne TV Dinner. And, don't forget the Trump monopoly-style board game--part of a long line of failed Trump products and businesses.

Above, curator Samuel West highlights items in the collection. Bringing together over 60 failed products and services from around the world, the collection provides "unique insight into the risky business of innovation." You can get another glimpse of the new institution below. Fittingly, the museum is free.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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Watch Priceless 17-Century Stradivarius and Amati Violins Get Taken for a Test Drive by Professional Violinists

Materials like carbon fiber and Lucite have been making their way into classical stringed instrument design for many years, and we’ve recently seen the 3-D printed electric violin come into being. It’s an impressive-sounding instrument, one must admit. But trained classical violinists, luthiers, music historians, and collectors all agree: the violin has never really been improved upon since around the turn of the 18th century, when two its finest makers—the Amati and Stradivari families—were at their peak. A few studies have tried to poke holes in the argument that such violins are superior in sound to modern makes. There are many reasons to view these claims with skepticism.

By the time the most expert Italian luthiers began making violins, the instrument had already more or less assumed its final shape, after the long evolution of its f-holes into the perfect sonic conduit. However, Amati and Stradivari not only refined the violin’s curves, edges, and neck design, they also introduced new chemical processes meant to protect the wood from worms and insects.

One biochemistry professor discovered that these chemicals “had the unintended result of producing the unique sounds that have been almost impossible to duplicate in the past 400 years.”

Knowing they had hit upon a winning formula, the top makers passed their techniques down for several generations, making hundreds of violins and other instruments. A great many of these instruments survive, though a market for fakes thrives alongside them. The instruments you see in the videos here are the real thing, four of the world’s oldest and most priceless violins, all of them residing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. These date from the late 1600s to early 1700s, and were all made in Cremona, the Northern Italian home of the great masters. At the top of the post, you can see Sean Avram Carpenter play Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor on a 1669 violin made by Nicolò Amati.

The next three videos are of violins made by Antonio Stradivari, perhaps once an apprentice of Amati. Each instrument has its own nickname: “The Gould” dates from 1693 and is, writes the Met, “the only [Stradivari] in existence that has been restored to its original Baroque form.” We can see Carpenter play Bach’s Sonata in C major on this instrument further up. Both “The Gould” and the Amati violin were made before modifications to the angle of the neck created “a louder, more brilliant tone.” Above you can hear “The Francesca,” from 1694. Carpenter plays from "Liebesleid" by Fritz Kreisler with the pianist Gabriela Martinez. See if you can tell the difference in tone between this instrument and the first two, less modern designs.

The last violin featured here, “The Antonius,” made by Stradivari in 1717, gets a demonstration in front of a live audience by Eric Grossman, who plays the chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor. This instrument comes from what is called Stradivari’s “Golden Period,” the years between 1700 and 1720. Some of the most highly valued of Stradivarii in private hands date from around this time. And some of these instruments have histories that may justify their staggering price tags. The Molitor Stradivarius, for example, was supposedly owned by Napoleon. But no matter the previous owner or number of millions paid, every violin created by one of these makers carries with it tremendous prestige. Is it deserved? Hearing them might make you a believer. Joseph Nagyvary, the Texas A&M professor emeritus who is discovering their secrets, tells us, “the great violin masters were making violins with more humanlike voices than any others of the time." Or any since, most experts would agree.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Make a Replica of 1900-Year-Old Glass Fish: A Brilliant Video from the British Museum

All due respect to the British Museum, but the title of its “How to Make a Glass Fish Replica” video, above is a tad misleading.

I’m sure no malice was intended, but "making" a DIY fish-shaped vessel reminiscent of some 22 found in the ancient Kushan storerooms at Begram, Afghanistan is no one's definition of an easy craft project. (Unless you're willing to fudge with some Elmer's, some blue felt, and an empty peanut butter jar...)

Glass Specialist Bill Gudenrath of the Corning Museum of Glass is an historian of glassworking techniques from ancient Egypt through the Renaissance and clearly expert at his craft, but he doesn’t appear to be too keen on supplying explanatory blow-by-blows. Nor would I be, bustling around a red hot glass oven, without so much as a Johnny Tremain-style leather apron to protect me. I'm not even sure I'd want the distraction of a video camera in my face.

But if, as the title implies, the goal is to produce a duplicate of this whimsical 1900-year-old guppy, the process must be broken down.

From what this casual viewer was able to piece together, the steps would go something like:

1. Twirl a red hot metal pipe in the forge until you have a healthy glob of molten glass. Apparently it's not so different from making cotton candy.

2. Roll the glass blob back and forth on a metal tray.

3. Blow into the pipe's non-glowing end to form a bubble.

4. Repeat steps 1-3

5. Roll the pipe back and forth on a metal sawhorse while seated, applying pinchers to taper the blob into a recognizably fishy-shape.

(Don’t worry about its proximity to your bare forearms and khaki-covered thighs! What could possibly go wrong?)

6. Twirl it like a baton.

(Depending on the length of your arms, your nascent glass fish may come dangerously close to the cement floor. Try not to sweat it.)

7. Use scissors and pinchers to tease out a nipple-shaped appendage that will become the fish’s lips.

8. Use another poker to apply various bloops of molten glass. (Novices may want to practice with a hot glue gun to get the hang of this - it’s trickier than it looks!)  Pinch, prod and drape these bloops into eye and fin shapes. A non-electric crimping iron will prove handy here.

9. Use blue glass, tweezers and crimping iron to personalize your fish-shaped vessel’s distinctive dorsal and anal fins.

10. Tap on the pipe to crack the fish loose. (Careful!)

11. Score the distal end with a glass cutting tool.

 (This step should prove a cinch for anyone who ever used a craft kit to turn empty beer and soda bottles into drinking glasses!)

12. Smooth rough edges with another loop of molten glass and some sort of electric underwater grinding wheel.

Optional 13th step: Read this description of a furnace session, to better acquaint yourself with both best glassblowing practices and the proper names for the equipment. Or get the jump on Christmas 2017 with this true how-to guide to producing hand blown glass ornaments.

Not planning on blowing any glass, fish-shaped or otherwise, any time soon?

Explore the somewhat mysterious history of the 1900-year-old fish-shaped original here, compliments of the British Museum’s St John Simpson, senior curator for its pre-Islamic collections from Iran and Arabia.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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