The holiday season turned brighter on east 91st Street and Fifth Avenue in New York on Friday, when the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum‘s Carnegie mansion reopened to the public after a 3-year hiatus. The goal was to “provide cutting edge digital experiences,” as director Caroline Baumann said at the official ceremony.
To stay competitive, most museums now are redesigning, but renovating isn’t exclusive to the art world. Many companies, like hotels, banks, stores, and other retailers can look to Cooper Hewitt’s approach if they undergo branding, communications and design changes.
The mission of Cooper Hewitt’s multifaceted program was to “renovate and reinvent” the museum, Baumann noted. That entailed coordinating 13 design firms to refresh the landmark mansion and grounds as well as a concerted PR, marketing and merchandising effort.
Keeping various audiences informed was a key part of the plan. Cooper Hewitt did so through media outreach, member e-newsletters and mailings, a blog highlighting daily objects, social media updates, and clever building signage with messages about the redesign progress.
Staff office relocations, construction delays and a brief government shutdown posed tough challenges along the way. As Wayne Clough, secretary of Smithsonian Institution said, all those involved “stuck through it thick and thin.”
In the process, some aspects of the museum changed and others remained status quo. While awards, education programs and events operated at different locations, the store operated online and as an occasional offsite pop-up. The museum revised its name, created a new typeface, and added gallery space with digital and interactive features.
Here’s a rundown of how the museum managed the transition and re-launch:
• Building signage: A series of banners posted outside served to remind neighbors and passersby about the museum’s redesign. Among recent messages created by agency Wieden+ Kennedy: “Our Scaffolding Design Exhibition Ends Soon.”
• Object of the day blog: The director and curators created the blog to highlight objects from the museum’s collection, and now it’s also a postcard book sold in the shop.
• Social media platforms: The museum has been active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with updates on the renovation. Recent posts, some written by the design firms, capture the rich visuals of the venue, using #NewCooperHewitt.
• Newsletters: Ongoing emails to members contained museum news, colorful images, and deals on art related events around town.
• National Design Awards: The awards honoring top designers carried on during the closure, along with a New York gala and White House luncheon with Michelle Obama.
• Design events: The museum held its events at offsite locations uptown, in midtown and downtown to appeal to its geographically dispersed member base. Their curators also appeared on discussion panels and gave tours at design fairs and shows.
• Membership deals: Membership fees held steady during the renovations, and the timeframe was extended, thereby enhancing the value. New York magazine featured the new ‘charter’ museum membership offer in its recent holiday gift guide.
• Sponsorships: The Cooper Hewitt’s Target sponsorship remained intact, given the retailer’s commitment to design and related education programs. Other sponsors, like Bloomberg Philanthropies, have also played a major role supporting the redesign.
• Media, member, visitor outreach: When the project was almost finished, the museum hosted press and member previews to keep these groups’ interest piqued prior to re-launch. Visitor tours are now being scheduled online.
Making changes inside and out
• Name revised: The museum, in conjunction with design consultancy Pentagram, revised the name from Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum to better reflect its heritage and affiliation with the D.C. institution.
• Typeface changed: Master type designer Chester Jenkins from the firm Village created a new bold, downloadable (and non-controversial) typeface for the museum to use on all its print and digital materials as well as its website, exhibition and labeling systems.
• Digital designs highlighted: A key focus, being an interactive design hub, is reflected in new installations and visitor experiences. Early next year museum-goers will use an interactive pen to save their favorite designs. In the ‘immersion room’ gallery, high-def touch-screen tables now enable guests to draw and project wallpaper designs. The ‘process lab’ with a 3-D printer serves as a workshop to address real-world design issues.
• Garden, cafe, store opened up: The public now has access to the garden, café and store, which had been open only to museum-goers. The garden, serving as a relaxing haven and a venue for parties and concerts, will be re-landscaped and reopens in late spring. The newly renovated café and expanded store are now operational. Among the designs for sale: items featuring the mansion made of emoticons and hashtags.
Recent media previews and member parties offered a clear view of the extent of the overhaul. Not many organizations or brands are as unique as the Cooper Hewitt museum, hosting awards that merit White House attention. Clough referred to the redesigned museum as a “stellar accomplishment”. And continuing the high-tech theme, officials used 3-D printed scissors at the ribbon-cutting event.