Users Design Their Own Journeys in New Digital Exhibition Platform

Cooper Hewitt’s new digital platform redesigns the way exhibitions are experienced online.

Visitors explore the exhibition by category and are led through each topic by a series of programmable paths. Cooper Hewitt

Cooper Hewitt has launched a new digital platform that redesigns the way exhibitions are experienced online. The digital exhibition platform is part of a suite of digital storytelling tools commissioned by the museum to deepen access and participation for local and global audiences, provide educators with agile avenues for expression, and create context for design’s role in a rapidly changing contemporary world.   

A Design Approach Rooted in Apple’s HyperCard Software for Exploration and Pathways 

Designed by Linked by Air, a design and technology firm based in Brooklyn that leverages leading-edge visual design to transform institutions, the platform’s user experience is inspired by Apple’s legendary pre-internet HyperCard software. The design team looked to the roots of the internet to redefine how we think of online experiences and empower our curators and storytellers with new tools for creation. The design offers users an unfolding progression of resources and content, leading to self-directed and unique experiences for every visit.  

As users explore an exhibition through the platform, they select a topic and are presented with two "doors" to choose from. The experience is analogous to navigating a physical space, and lets visitors investigate quickly and intentionally before spending time on an object, video, or text that grabs their interest. Each journey is tracked on the “your visit so far” page that can be referenced at any time, and users have the option to return to a previous room when they desire. The platform was designed to hold a diversity of multimedia content, beyond what would fit in a physical gallery. It also equalizes scholarly and popular perspectives—publishing video clips and anecdotes alongside academic research—subverting traditional hierarchies often at play within institutions and inviting discovery, learning, and moments of inspiration.   

Harkening the HyperCard philosophy of usability, the publishing tools are designed to allow storytellers of all technical backgrounds the capability to bring their content to life without additional coding or development. Museum educators, curators, and editors as well as external contributors can work collaboratively and efficiently to share in the process of interpreting an exhibition’s themes, histories, and protagonists.

The platform is mobile-ready in the gallery as an exhibition companion or at home as an independent experience. Cooper Hewitt

Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion 

Accessibility and inclusion are foundational to the design and use of the platform. Optimized to be used with mobile and assistive technologies, the platform underwent rigorous Smithsonian reviews to meet WCAG 2.0 AA standards of web accessibility. It was conceived to serve digital-only users, but also complements a trip to the museum with a responsive, mobile-friendly interface, allowing visitors to prepare for, reflect on, and dive deeper into a visit to the galleries.  

The first project to launch on the platform, Willi Smith: Street Couture, illuminates how the American designer Willi Smith (1948–1987) and his collaborators broke down social, cultural, and economic boundaries by marrying affordable, adaptable "street couture" with avant-garde performance, film, and design. Users can explore Smith’s designs, personal recollections from his collaborators, commissioned essays from artists and scholars, archival video, and digital ephemera that piece together Smith’s life, work, community, and historical context. Inspired by Smith’s inclusive way of working, the Willi Smith: Street Couture virtual exhibition invites users to choose their own adventure within Smith’s milieu, following themes such as fashion, performance, film, and community, and learning about his impact through a variety of storytellers. Some of the narrative voices, from inside and beyond the Smithsonian include Elaine Nichols, Senior Curator of Culture at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, activist Bethann Hardison, costume designer Ruth Carter, and artist Brendan Fernandes, a recipient of the 2020 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. 

The platform’s flexible design enabled the curatorial and editorial teams developing Willi Smith: Street Couture to model Smith’s collaborative way of working by prioritizing cooperative strategies for telling his story. Using the deck of card formats, editors highlighted points of note in archival images, grouped objects together to elucidate historical design movements, presented discoveries and memories from Smith’s collaborators, and introduced long-form essays tagging accessible quotes. The resulting collage of content levels fashion, art, design, performance, and digital media as manifestations of a broad creative network of influence, rather than the output of a lone genius. 

The platform is designed to meet WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility standards with additional features such as integrated transcripts for screen readers. Cooper Hewitt

Going Beyond the Walls of the Exhibition with Community Engagement 

The idea for creating a new digital experience for discovery and active exchange with the museum’s audiences began with the Street Couture team’s open call for submissions of objects and stories in the summer of 2019. That year, Cooper Hewitt began working with NMAAHC to collect oral histories from Smith’s closest collaborators, fanned out to record recollections from his broader community, and then invited the public to weigh in—people whose lives were impacted by Smith or who might give perspective on how a designer’s work ripples out into the world. Cargo, a website design firm, created a prototype site called the Willi Smith Digital Community Archive to share and continue to collect these stories from Smith's colleagues, friends, and collaborators while contextualizing them with archival videos, film, and commissioned essays from the Willi Smith: Street Couture book (Cooper Hewitt, Rizzoli Electa, 2020), published online for free. 

The positive response to this site, which launched March 13, 2020, galvanized by museum closures due to COVID, led to a new focus on developing a playful and story-rich digital space that allowed for a topical and user-led experience that could not be replicated in physical space.  

We began a series of workshops with representatives from all departments of the museum, asking what they wanted from a digital exhibition, how an online platform could enhance interpretation and research, and whether this work could be a new way of collaborating and connecting with our audiences. The feedback produced a design brief for an addictively searchable, fun, and navigationally intuitive platform. The team pointed to a variety of influences from the institutional and private sectors such as the Staedel Museum’s Digitorials, the MET Primers, The Anne Frank Annex experience, NMAAHC’s community curation project, The Museum on Main Street Stories, Kimberly Jenkins' Fashion and Race Database, and commercial art sites like Artsy that have high session duration averages.  

Our work together has influenced new thinking about virtual exhibition and publication platforms within the museum while surfacing critical conversations about framing expertise, creating purposeful interactions with audiences, and documenting erased or marginalized histories. 

A Suite of Digital Products and Future Digital Exhibitions 

Cooper Hewitt will host more digital exhibitions this coming year including Designing Peace, an intersectional and visual conversation between activists, designers, architects, and theorists about how design can help foster the conditions for global peace and build a better future now. Iterating on version 1 of the tool with different types of projects, the digital exhibition for Designing Peace will demonstrate the platform’s ability to be a resource for telling diverse design stories that emerge from the museum’s 30 centuries of global design objects. 

The platform enables Cooper Hewitt to reach an international audience with expansive content generated across departments by curatorial, education, publishing and interpretation, digital and emerging media, and the public while providing a long-term resource for scholars and enthusiasts. It allows us to experiment with new interpretive methods, adjusting and evolving to meet the needs of different audiences. We see the platform as an amalgamation of the Smithsonian’s efforts to make Smithsonian content available in every home and classroom, dedication to creating agile and collaborative platforms, and work to represent complex American stories. 

Adam Quinn is the digital product manager at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. 

Alexandra Cunningham Cameron is a curator of contemporary design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.