Kim Robledo-Diga, deputy director of Education and Interpretation at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York

by Paulina Budzioch

The implementation of technology in museum spaces is not a particularly new phenomenon. However, the conversation regarding technology has taken on a louder voice and urgency as the Internet, social media, and mobile devices have asserted a more prominent role in our daily lives. Museum administrators and curators are increasingly tasked with mediating the physical space of the gallery and now also the invisible cyber world where social media makes its home. 

Following a three-year renovation and digital implementation program, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum has opened its doors and responded to the clamor of technology.

Insider Kim Robledo-Diga, the Deputy Director of Education & Interpretation at Cooper Hewitt, shares about the place of technology in her practice and how design can create a space for inclusivity and expression within a museum.

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PAULINA BUDZIOCH: What does it mean to work in interpretation and education in a museum? Is it a role you take on as a translator in some ways?

KIM ROBLEDO-DIGA: The interpretation part of my role here is working with and partnering heavily with the curatorial department, the digital department, and thinking about the best way to use our digital technology in our exhibitions. From label copy, to the way things are laid out, to themes. Our digital technology, that’s still new to us, so we’re kind of growing and feeling that out. Also, because typically most museums’ curatorial departments come from a more academic background and perspective, answering questions that a general public wants to know is part of my work as well. I bring the perspective of a visitor into the meetings.

As educators, we also want to focus on process. So not just looking at the final object but asking for sketches, brainstorms, and even failures, as part of that suite of objects we collect along with it, so we can have opportunities to tell that story to our visitors. It’s a little bit of everything. Just now I think we’re all settling into what could happen and what should be happening with the museum.

PB: I’ve been scouring the Internet for videos and interviews of people interacting with the digital components and it looks so different than what I would anticipate in a typical museum. It seems that the touchscreens, interactivity, and pen technology, are built to enhance the collection instead of putting a screen in front of it. Additionally, you have all of these digitized works on display in the galleries along with the physical objects. What is the benefit of these technologies?

KR-D: The pen has been an incredible success. It could have gone either way. It’s literally a brand new technology and a brand new approach. There were some visitors who were not fans of it but the vast majority are often very pleased with the result. And with people, it’s like potato chips, they just can’t stop with one.  I’m speaking of this but not taking any credit with the development, it was a bigger team effort. But from observations of the education department, walking around with everyone else, it becomes clear.

In the field, museums are racing to digitize their collections, which is amazing but then you think about it, who really visits the museum’s website and looks at their collection online outside of researchers and other museum curators? Who? You’re putting tens of thousands of objects on your website but who really looks at it? It’s such a small percentage of the population. We have that digitized collection in the galleries along with the physical objects. We’ve surpassed a million objects collected. These are people who are looking at objects in our collection who would have never looked at them online. When people visit the museum we have a 25 percent rate of return to our website after the museum, and that’s significantly higher than most museums have. It’s been a great response so far.

You can’t search on our tables and we purposefully did that because we wanted it to be a ‘tripping’ upon our collection. So you might come in thinking you only want to see fashion, but then through the process of our river and these objects floating around you may find a wall covering that you would never have thought to look for. Just like what would happen in a gallery. Museums don’t put up what you want, they put up things for you to discover and never thought you would be interested in. We want to mirror that experience with our digital tables.

We have the immersion room which is incredibly successful. It basically turned our least popular collection into our most popular collection. It’s spectacular because not only can you view our wall coverings, but you can design your own and see it splashed across the walls and all of this can be saved. Your wall coverings, the design you create on the digital tables can all be collected. It allows for a lot of possibilities.

We currently have a Pixar exhibition on view. We have several dozen objects on view in the gallery but then we have another 600 objects from Pixar that we’re able to add through digital in the galleries that we couldn’t hang because there’s not enough space to show that work. So that’s amazing, the way we can expand an exhibition. But even more fun is that we are able to relate objects to each other. We had our education team and curatorial team watch Pixar films as part of their job and then we would comb through our collection and find connections. So we had an amazing time meeting and thinking about a drawing of a rat from Ratatouille and how it fit into our collection. It was an interesting lens with Pixar’s work.


PB: I’m interested in these aspects of fun and play that are present at Cooper Hewitt in general, especially through the Process Lab. The Process Lab seems to be a place where play and learning are activated directly in the museum. I was interested in whether or not you embrace the role of play in your own practice.

KR-D: Actually, the kind of mantra we have on all of our banners is ‘Play Designer at Cooper Hewitt.’ That was a big part of the relaunch and success of the digital table. The greatest success is that you can design on the digital tables and experience that process in our Process Lab. Before we closed we knew that visitors were always struggling with what is design. What does prototyping and brainstorming mean? It’s quite different from an art museum. How is design different from fine art? They couldn’t help but always look at our objects through an aesthetic point of view. The Process Lab came to be a space that helped people understand what design is and the design process through multiple lenses. It’s not just a kid space, it’s meant for everyone. We hope that when they leave the Process Lab they have an understanding of those concepts when they go into the galleries. Instead of thinking, ‘That’s a beautiful chair,’ they start thinking ‘Who’s the user for the chair?’ ‘What were the challenges the designer was trying to solve?’ ‘What would I change about the design?’ They have an opinion on it because they’re users of design every day whereas if you have a person standing in front of an 18th century Dutch painting, they have less thought about coming to that with no prior knowledge. When you ask someone about a chair, they all have an opinion because they’ve all sat in multiple chairs and they can easily share and not feel intimidated that they have to be an expert in order to speak upon their user experience. So the play designer is incredibly important. The Process Lab is just a starting point and that sense of play just continues through the galleries.

PB: You have a background as a fine artist. You mentioned that you went to SAIC and got your MFA in ceramics. Do you feel that your work as a fine artist has lent itself to your practice as an administrator in any way?

KR-D: I do. My undergraduate and graduate degrees were both in ceramics. I was going to be a poor starving clay sculptor and then…when I was at SAIC, at the end of my first year I remember assisting with a ceramics history class and preparing slides. And the SAIC ceramics department was basically in the basement. I was doing these slides week after week, thinking, we are literally in the basement of the museum. Why don’t we take the students upstairs and go into the galleries? And that was the first time I used objects to teach, and I really started to enjoy it. I was just planning on being an artist and figuring that out, but I really started to enjoy that aspect of teaching with objects and I had never thought about museum education before. I’ve gone to museums but never thought of that as a field. So my second year at SAIC, we had a museum administration program and I took three or four courses while I was there just to get a sense of if this was a field I wanted to get into. So that’s kind of how it all started.

In many art forms, and especially ceramics, you do everything from start to finish. You literally mix your own clay, you make your own work, mix and design your own glazes, and you fire your own kiln. I saw the whole process in a holistic way and it has been beneficial in this area of work. Also, the creative side of the art making allows me to take that creativity and to create programming with an imaginative perspective. I didn’t study design at all so I had my crash course at Cooper Hewitt. But I do believe my fine art background benefited my career here in the museum world. I’ve been in the museum field for about 14 years now.


PB: Sometimes I feel that larger institutions have a hard time engaging in their communities but you’ve been pretty successful with the City of Neighborhoods program. The program brings designers into communities to work with youth to identify and solve problems through a design lens. What do you think makes the City of Neighborhoods workshops so successful?

KR-D: When I first adopted the program it was geared towards architecture. You would look at your community through the lens of architecture, the shapes, the textures, the forms. Eventually we were talking about how it can’t be just about architecture and we evolved it into people looking at their own community just like a designer. Finding through research, through interviewing, through observation, finding challenges or opportunities in your community that you can start working towards solving. Once that switch was made it really blew up and it was extremely popular. Every month we were virtually in a different city, taking the program around the country. It was pretty amazing. We mostly worked with school teachers but also with community groups, trying to resolve challenges they’re having. We had a heavy presence and still do in New Orleans. We showed up right after Katrina and there was this moment where the nation’s whole attention switched to what was happening to the gulf area and designers were coming out of the woodwork to help rebuild the city. But when we went down, we found that the community was overwhelmed because these outsiders were coming in and redesigning their city but not asking them what they want or asking what was important for them or what they would want to see. So they felt like it was just an opportunity for these folks to add an item to their portfolio. So we really did a lot of trainings with the community and the schools to help them think, What would you want to rebuild, how would it look? What are the challenges you had before that can be solved now?

We had a design fair where students who had worked on projects with teachers and made prototypes presented them at the fair. We also invited the designers and architects who had come into New Orleans to do work to see what the kids were doing, to have these conversations with families talking about what their needs are. So we spent many years mediating that experience between the two parties.

You don’t have to be a trained designer to understand what your community’s needs are and to show that in some form through a prototype sketch. You have a voice, you’re the user. Really helping them empower their own thinking and their own ideas. We brought in designers to help the community think bigger, to expand their minds and consider all the possibilities that are out there. Almost training them to think and be designers but then also bringing in their unique perspective and that’s where we continue today. We’ve been in dozens of cities across the country for the last eight years.

PB: I’m seeing this theme about having your own voice and being able to express your opinion with City of Neighborhoods but also at Cooper Hewitt, dispelling this myth that you have to be an expert to have an opinion about the work that you’re seeing. Do you think Cooper Hewitt is spear heading this movement for inclusivity and allowing people to express themselves more freely in a museum?

KR-D: I don’t know about spearheading or leading but a major focus of ours is finding the designer in yourself so you can change yourself. Whenever I work with young people they don’t always know where to start, I tell them, ‘It’s easy. All you do is ask yourself what bugs you. What bothers you? What do you wish was different?’ And they can easily come up with a list of what bothers them and then we start another list, what about that bothers you? And then we start asking what you’re going to do about those things. And it can be the chair you sit in at school or the clothes you wear or the bus ride. And this design process creates a road map. People know where opportunities and challenges are, you can easily identify them if you ask the right questions. And they can tell you why they personally have a challenge or identify what’s positive or negative about X, Y and Z. What they don’t have is that blueprint of how to make it right. The design process gets them closer to a better answer. But what also helps, which we’ve come to recognize, is when kids quickly self-select themselves as not being artists because they don’t draw well. After elementary school everyone is realizing, ‘I’m not a good artist’ or ‘I’m not a good musician.’ And when kids don’t identify themselves as a talented draftsman they instantly don’t see themselves as creative. In design, there are many opportunities to develop and show your creative side. You can be a creative thinker but not a great draftsman. Just because you’re not great at figure drawing doesn’t mean you’re not a great problem solver. So this design process has been able to pull back those kids and adults who remove themselves from the creative thinking part of their life because they think they aren’t artistic. We’re able to bring them back in through design. Some have strengths in facilitating, some are just great team leaders, some think of brilliant ideas. Each has a strength that the process is able to help shine.

Museums have classically been a place where we invite visitors to come and look in awe of other great masters. In my mind, that’s not what museums should be. The whole idea of making or a maker movement is a little separated from artistic creation, so again it doesn’t scare off people who don’t feel like they are artists but they might be geeks at fixing engines or building or whatever it may be. So I thought it was important to find those creative voices in everyone and the maker movement has that creativity and science and technology connection that happen all together.

  • by Paulina Budzioch

    KIM ROBLEDO-DIGA oversees exhibition and program interpretation at Cooper Hewitt. She worked on the Process Lab, which offers hands-on experiences for visitors of all ages and abilities, providing opportunities to learn about design and design thinking in fresh, interactive ways. Prior to joining Cooper Hewitt, Robledo-Diga was the director of innovation and learning at the Newark Museum, where she developed and executed new strategies for learning experiences to engage the museum’s diverse audience.

    PAULINA BUDZIOCH is a graduate student in the Art Administration and Policy program at SAIC. Her research has focused on the implementation of digital technology into museum spaces and the positive role interactive design can play into visitor experience.