01 Mar 2015
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New Idea: State of the Art

How do you build a physical museum for a digital era?
by Francis Storrs

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Photos courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

On the subject of art’s relevance in the digital age, Scott Belsky (MBA 2008) has never been one to mince words. “Art institutions need to change the way we think about the future, rather than simply inform us of the past,” he told an interviewer in 2013. It was a quantifiable argument: A major National Endowment for the Arts survey released that year reported that only about 20 percent of Americans visit museums annually, but 71 percent engaged with the arts through electronic media.

Belsky’s criticism wasn’t just a general suggestion, it was an action plan. Less than a year earlier, he’d been invited to join the board of Manhattan’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, which was in the midst of a three-year, $79 million transformation.

The museum work was familiar territory: Belsky’s career has focused on developing better ways for the Internet to serve creative professionals and their audiences. In 2006, he cofounded Behance, a networked portfolio website for artists. Six years later, it was acquired by Adobe, where Belsky now oversees products related to social networking and mobile apps. The overlap between his nine-to-five and the Cooper Hewitt board work is productive—and entirely intentional. The museum “wants to make design more relevant and accessible,” Belsky says. “Similarly, with Behance, we have tried to make design—and all forms of creative expression—accessible and searchable.”

When the Cooper Hewitt reopened in December, it featured a deep integration of its digital experience. Massive, high-resolution touchscreen tables let visitors call up and manipulate images from its entirely digitized collection. The Immersion Room (pictured above) allows users to select different wallpapers from an extensive digital collection and project them on the walls. Upon entering the museum, visitors are also given a special digital pen that they can tap on various exhibits to record their experience and later explore online what they saw in person.

But of all the new features, it’s a historic survey of human tool-making—including more than 150 objects, from stone axes to iPhones, selected from 10 Smithsonian collections—that feels particularly relevant to Belsky these days as he and his Adobe team build virtual tools. “Sometimes,” Belsky says, “considering the history in a field helps set context for the future.”

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Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2008, Section I
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