When the newly renamed Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum reopens in December, visitors will get their first glimpse inside a massive three-year renovation of the museum's Carnegie Mansion house in New York. They'll also get a pen. But the pen isn't the standard ink-filled instrument for note-taking. Instead, it's an electronic wand with the potential to change how people interact with museum exhibits.

  • Rendering of the pen.

    Credit: © 2014 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

    Rendering of the pen.

The Cooper Hewitt pen was designed by New York-based Local Projects and Diller Scofidio + Renfro with a host of technology firms and companies that specialize in interactive exhibits, engineering, and technology development. Its two main purposes are to store information about the exhibits and to serve as a drawing tool for creating new designs.

The technology is based on a handheld device called the vWand developed by Sistel Networks, used to keep records organized in places like hospitals. Like the vWand, the Cooper Hewitt pen uses Near Field Communication (NFC) to gather information from NFC-tagged objects, such as a label on an exhibit. The vWand is much larger than a standard pen, so the museum turned to General Electric to give the device a sleeker makeover. The pen prototype is trimmed down, but still larger than your typical ballpoint.

When a visitor sees something that intrigues them, they will be able to virtually collect the object by scanning the object's NFC tag with the pen. They then can take the pen to one of the museum's many interactive tables and access information about the items collected. Designed by Ideum, the tables will be topped with large flat screens and can be used by about six people simultaneously to retrieve the information from the pens.

Interactive tables are not new to museums, but they're typically just large touch screens. With Cooper Hewitt's pen (linked to admission ticket numbers), the information that visitors access at those tables can be stored for future reference.

The simplicity of the pen's design is one of the main selling points, says Seb Chan, the museum's director of digital and emerging technologies. "It operates like a pen," Chan says. "It doesn't require a user manual, and it's quiet. It's not a thing that requires attention."

Credit: © 2014 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Visitors will also be able to use the tables like giant sketchbooks, and create their own designs inspired by the museum's collection. For example, someone particularly entranced with one of the objects on display, like a mug, could learn more about that design and its history, as well as view it from all angles. They could also browse through similar items in the museum's collection that aren't on display, and then, if they are so inspired, draw their own mug design.

"Drawing is one of those fundamental parts of expressing in a visual manner," says Rosanna Flouty, who teaches a museums and interactive technologies course at New York University. Though she was not involved in the design of the pen, Flouty is excited about the potential for introducing the general public to a design mindset while they're at the museum. "They're asking people who don't consider themselves artists to create."

And that's precisely the idea, according to Caroline Baumann, director of the museum. "We want you to feel like a designer as you walk through the exhibits," she says.

Cooper Hewitt will also have an "immersion room" with massive screens lining two of the walls. The room will be dedicated to the museum's extensive collection of 7,953 wall coverings made of leather, paper, and other materials. There isn't space to display all of them, but in this room visitors will be able to see what the wall coverings would look like if they were actually covering walls. Visitors will also be able to draw their own patterns, and project them on the wall.

Any designs created or objects collected with the pen will be stored online. Visitors can access their designs via a custom URL on the back of their admissions ticket.

"When you get home, you can see how you meandered through the museum," Baumann says. Any future visits can be linked to the same profile, allowing ardent museum-goers to create a digital scrapbook of their visits to Cooper Hewitt over time. The museum also hopes that the additional interactivity will bring in more repeat visitors.

The digital scrapbook visitors create will become virtual souvenirs; they can even be used as Pinterest-like idea books of the museum's collection. Whether other museums eventually adopt the idea—or visitors take to it—remains to be seen.