Very soon, every visitor to the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s recently reopened design museum, will receive a giant pen. This pen is not really a pen. On the table, it looks like a gray plastic crayon the size of a turkey baster. In the hand, it feels pleasing, chunky, hefty like a toddler’s rubber ball. And at the museum, it does something magical.
Next to every object on-display at the Cooper Hewitt is a small pattern that looks like the origin point of the coordinate plane. When the pen touches it, the digital record of that object is added to the visitor’s personal museum collection. When they leave, they will have to return the pen, but information about and high-resolution photos of the object will be waiting for them.
To people who photograph placards when they visit museums—a group to which I belong—the pen is a godsend. It anticipates a need and executes it; it is a straightforward, useful object. But it’s something more. The pen does something that countless companies, organizations, archives, and libraries are trying to do: It bridges the digital and the physical.
Last month, the Cooper Hewitt welcomed visitors again after a three-year-long closed-door renovation. Its leaders were rethinking what a design museum should be. And a five-member team inside it—Cooper Hewitt Labs—was thinking about questions which the pen addresses, questions about how to bind the vast possibilities of the digital with the finite fact of the physical.
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