Why our wearable isn’t a bright shiny thing, but an architecture taking lessons learned from…
Shelley Bernstein

On the Cooper Hewitt Pen, wristbands, and visitors in museums

My 7XL is not yet invented” Dr Octagon/Kool Keith

There’s quite a lot in the story of making the Cooper Hewitt Pen that isn’t obvious to the casual reader, and definitely not to general museum visitor.

When Aaron Cope and I wrote our long piece on the Pen in early 2015, we were writing from a moment when the Pen had just launched and the data on its use was very much in its infancy. Since then, though, Micah Walter and the remaining team at Cooper Hewitt have publicly released a dataset of its usage in its first year — although it needs to be emphasised that the dataset doesn’t include the many visitors who ‘created accounts’ after visiting. This redaction was done, I understand, to honour the commitment to visitors owning their own data and privacy — even though the data was anonymised as much as possible.

Careful analysis of that data might reveal a number of important things and answer critical questions for those seeking to replicate the success of the Pen.

“The Pen has exceptionally high take up and usage within the museum”

How much of this is a result of the form factor and physical design of the Pen itself? How much of this is because of the coginitve consonance between the purpose/brand of the Cooper Hewitt (as a design resource; about design as a contemporary, living, and active practice; and the idea of the museum as a site of visitor activity instead of visitor passivity) and the form factor of the Pen as a tool of design? This brand consonance was a key part of Local Projects rationale for proposing the Pen in the first instance. This carried through to the 7 guiding design principles articulated in the industrial design phase with MakeSimply, GE and Undercurrent (see page 17 of the Cooper Hewitt Design Journal Fall 2014). And how much of this is ‘just’ the human-centred onboarding and gentle in-visit support by visitor services staff — which is a factor in the success of the O at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA)?

“The Pen also has very high ‘post-visit’ login figures”

More than 1/3 of visitors who actively use the pen check back in after their visit and many of these go on to create permanent Cooper Hewitt accounts. I’d wager that there is also a percentage of visitors who have lost their ticket and would have liked to have logged in but couldn’t. Anyone who works with or in museums (or other cultural ‘attractions’) knows that these are enormously high figures and very appealing to try to replicate. When we were working on the Pen we were very inspired by the success of MONA in Hobart who have had similar success.

How much of this post-visit activity is driven by objects that visitors have seen and ‘collected’, versus activity driven by things that visitors have ‘made themselves’ (on the interactive tables or immersion room)? In other words, how much of that post-visit interest is driven by showing your friends and family what you ‘made’ versus what you ‘saw’? Further, how much of the interest in post-visit activity is the result of curatorial excellence and comes because the objects on display have genuine appeal and generate a curiosity that is unable to be satisfied in a gallery visit?


When the Pen project was in progress my team looked at a number of different form factors. Aaron and I talk about this a little in our 2015 paper, and at one stage we even considered wristbands — slapbands to be precise — along with ‘power rings’ and touch/swipe cards.

A quick and dirty ‘comparison’ of possible form factors for Cooper Hewitt circa late 2013.

As it turned out, wristbands have been quite widely used in Science Centers along with cards. The strangely named @Bristol in Bristol, the Experimentarium in Copenhagen, are two of many that do them. At these institutions the ‘ticket’ to the museum is a disposable wristband much like those you get when you attend a music festival. There’s usually no smarts in the band itself and although I’ve seen some that have passive RFID chips in them, most use a QR code. As visitors move through the science center doing activities they are able to ‘save’ them by waving their wristband under a reader.

Much like the Cooper Hewitt, the wristband also has a unique code that the visitor uses to login and retrieve their visit later on. Again, like Cooper Hewitt, there is no ‘in-museum’ collection of email addresses — which is undeniably a good thing in terms of privacy and trust.

But back to slapbands. Did you know that in the early 1990s there was a moral panic around slapbands in public schools in New York? We didn’t either, until we found that New York schools ended up banning them! Apparently rumour has it that kids were taking the metal out of the innards of slapbands and using them to ‘cut’ other kids. Then again, its all clown terrror nowadays.

As for pens, it turned out that the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz had been using their own version of a ‘pen’ for years. Granted, it didn’t do what the Cooper Hewitt Pen does, but at the time we weren’t aware of its existence.

The pen at Ars Electronica is used, amongst other things, to control a giant screen from ‘books’.

Then again

Having now worked across several different ‘types’ of museum I’m still amazed at how art museums are loathe to seriously look at what science museums have been doing (often for years). Part of this is because of the different audiences and funders that each draw, but realistically this means that science museums are generally a good decade ahead of art museums in terms of visitor experiences. Not to mention that they have had the most experience with the most demanding of visitors — parents and young children.

Science museums are very clear on their purpose. They are there to inspire a curiosity about the world, explain phenomena and excite people to consider becoming the next generation of scientists. There’s never any question that they should primarily appeal to working scientists — that’s not their core audience — but instead be a respected pipeline for future scientists and means to a more scientifically literate society.

Tweets like this point to one of the core issues in art museums — and some of the tension around their ‘purpose’. Visitor research often shows two, initially, counter trends. On one hand visitors will frequently say that they’d like to know more context around a work, an artist, a movement, and why a work is the way it is. On the otherhand, the same visitor will indicate that they don’t want to read a label (assuming it is written with them in mind in the first place), or use an audio/media guide. At the same time we are witnessing a huge shift and interest in ‘contemporary art as spectacle and experience’. Perhaps, as Nicholas Thomas’ rejoinder that museums should be about curiosity is enough, and technologies designed to answer only what is asked, or what the museum wishes to tell, are only going to appeal to a subsection of visitors.

One things I always used to stress at Cooper Hewitt was that my view of the purpose of the museum was to be similarly inspirational rather than directly ‘educational’ — inspire the next generation of designers, and build a broad design literacy. In other words, a democratic design museum. It wasn’t about the art museum as a vessel of social and cultural capital or exclusionary power, even if that is the operating environment of many institutions.

Where I am now, ACMI, I’m attempting the same. A democratic museum of film, TV, video games, digital culture and art — designed to develop a deep critical curiosity in and of those media that affects and permeates a visitor’s life.