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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free: A Crash Course in Design Think­ing from Stanford’s Design School

Bauhaus, Mod­ernism & Oth­er Design Move­ments Explained by New Ani­mat­ed Video Series

Abstract: Netflix’s New Doc­u­men­tary Series About “the Art of Design” Pre­mieres Today

The Smith­son­ian Picks “101 Objects That Made Amer­i­ca”

Smith­son­ian Dig­i­tizes & Lets You Down­load 40,000 Works of Asian and Amer­i­can Art

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.

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  • Jeff Bloom says:

    I love what you are try­ing to do, but the web­site is ter­ri­ble. The “Search” func­tion does not work. It took a long time to find “Search”, as well. It should be much more promi­nent. You can’t tell what is and is not con­tent (ads vs. con­tent). And, it’s almost impos­si­ble to find the con­tent one wants. There’s too much infor­ma­tion on the first page. Sim­pli­fy and orga­nize it. And, put the techies in the clos­et and get some­one with some sense to orga­nize the lay­out.

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