Sunday, November 8, 2015

The New Cooper Hewitt

In 1895, three granddaughters of Peter Cooper (1791-1883), designer and builder of the first steam locomotive in America, and founder of the Cooper Union school for science and arts, asked the school for space to create a museum for decoration inspired by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.  The museum was founded in 1896 and was originally known as the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration.

The interests of the museum and the school diverged, and as the school’s finances were stressed, in 1963 the Cooper Union announced the closing of the museum.  Heeding the subsequent outcry the Smithsonian agreed to take over the collections and library in 1967.  In 1972 the Carnegie Corporation donated its mansion on the Upper East Side of New York to house the museum.  It was the first Smithsonian Museum outside of Washington D.C.

We were at the opening in 1976 and remember the former curator of the collections, J. Stewart Johnson, who had just become Curator of Design at The Museum of Modern Art, being there and commenting that this was the first time he had actually viewed the the objects since they had all been packed up during his tenure!

The museum has recently gone through a major renovation taking over a building next door in order to move their offices relieving exhibition space, adding a bigger shop and putting in a freight elevator. We had made a donation of our German Jugendstil pewter collection and some other decorative arts objects a couple of years ago but not had a chance to see them in their new home.  When we went back to New York this time we made an appointment with old friends, Cara McCarty, Curatorial Director, and Sarah Coffin, Curator of 17th and 18th Century Decorative Arts, as well as Head Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.

We were treated to a nice healthy lunch in their new cafeteria, which has also been added during the renovation.  A much needed addition since there are not many simple lunch places in close proximity. It looks out over the garden, which will be open to visitors, but is still under construction.  From there we were taken into the mansion itself, which thankfully had not changed in its beautiful early 20th century style with its dark wood paneled rooms.  In any case the Carnegie Mansion was designated a land marked building in 1974 so its essence had to be preserved.  Ninety-one million dollars was raised for the project and about eighty million was used for the renovation leaving the remainder as an endowment.

We were handed admission badges and what looked like a thick pen.  Mystified we were taken to large glass tables on which we could call up most of the objects in the collection.  We were shown how to drag objects we selected into a personal collection.  What then you may ask?  When you get home you can enter the code printed on your admission ticket and bring all those works of art that you “collected” into your personal collection on your computer.   What is truly incredible is that almost all the 210,000 objects in the collection were digitized and bar coded within 18 months, which must be some kind of record for organization and efficiency!

Another statistic that amazed me was that 92% of the visitors take the pens (which you are meant to return when you leave) and only two have walked away so far.  Even more surprising is the statistic that 34% of those who used the pen have retrieved the material again at home … Yes, big brother is watching!

As you can imagine 210,000 works of art cannot be shown all at once and, as a matter, of fact, only about 600 are on display at any one time.  As a result only two pieces from our donation were on view and, as we had been told, are shown in what was originally one of the mansions guest bathrooms! They are a pair of Kayzersinn Candlesticks, German 1900-1902, and the beautiful French 18th century gilt bronze musical clock stand, which I gave in memory of my father.  I dragged those with my pen into “my collection” and when I got home I was able to retrieve an image and all the documentation.  -

I must admit that when you go through your “collection” at home you may look at a couple of your images and scratch your head and think, why in the world did I want to save that one?   By going on the museum’s website you can search through the collections but it is helpful to have data such as the designer or accession numbers, otherwise you need to figure out rather detailed and therefore complicated search categories.

It’s always nice to come across something familiar even if it did not come out of your own collection.
As we continued on our expert guided tour of the rest of the museum we saw that an entire room had been dedicated to the collection of model staircases donated to the museum by Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw many of which we had seen when the Thaws lived in Santa Fe.

For me it was definitely a new and different experience in museum going, viewing familiar objects and interacting with them in a whole new way.

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