Paul Thompson, director of the Cooper Hewitt Museum

Interviews by Steven Heller
1 599 words8 min read

Paul Thompson was the Director for eight years of the Design Museum London. (a museum of contemporary and modern design established by Terence Conran) and in Summer 2001 was named as director of the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York

Why did you become the director of the Cooper Hewitt?
I was intrigued by the idea of working in a museum with historic collections, having worked in a museum where life really began with the Deutsche Werkbund [The German Workshop of the 1920s that was known for its integration of all forms of applied arts]! I wanted to see how you could create ‘a dialogue’ between the historic, non-Western artifacts and the industrially designed objects of the twentieth century which comprise the Cooper-Hewitt’s collections.

England has long held popular culture and applied design as national treasures and has the museums to prove it, including your former venue, the Design Museum London. How do you feel the US compares? In other words, does the US have more or less of a commitment to preserving and exhibiting the relics of everyday life?
Yes, the decorative and ‘useful arts’ were of course championed by Prince Albert and Henry Cole. But now, I think Britain has a confused relationship with the applied/decorative arts and contemporary design. Like other countries, applied arts and design in the UK fall on the wrong side of the ‘high’ and ‘low’ arts divide. In order to get column inches or gallery space, you have to press the ‘design as art’ button – then audiences and journalists feel comfortable, or worse still, press the ‘design as retail opportunity’ button.

In terms of pre 19th century material, the decorative arts are viewed as an unfashionable purlieu – hence the seemingly relentless decline in visitor numbers at the V&A, while the contemporary YBA (Young British Artists) pack in the crowds at the Tate, Serpentine and others.

And the U.S? I think there’s a huge appetite for the decorative arts and material culture here: the V&A’s problems would be solved in an instant, if the Museum were transplanted to New York – dusty labels and all! I think New Yorkers actually have a much greater appetite for the old stuff than Londoners at the moment.

How does the Cooper Hewitt, which admittedly has run the gamut in its collections from high-end design to quotidian pursuits equal European institutions in terms of government support for its curatorial policies?
The sums are very easy to present: fifty per cent of Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s support comes from Federal and Smithsonian funds. The remaining fifty we raise ourselves. That’s certainly a more generous figure than the 13 per cent the Design Museum London received from the Department for Culture in the UK.

However, fifty per cent would be slightly lower than the support offered to the Centre Georges Pompidou in France, the V&A in the UK, or the neue Sammlung in Germany - substantial national collections.

Does the government have a priority or standard for what part of the Smithsonian gets the lion’s share of funds? Is collecting design, for example, a high, middle or low priority?
Traditionally, Science has received the greater share. That process is now being reassessed, and the Museums’ sector is receiving a larger percentage.

I would say ‘design’ is a high priority, although the ‘D’ word isn’t necessarily used. The great artifacts in the Air & Space Museum and the American History Museum may primarily have been chosen as icons of cultural or social significance, but they’re also recorded as examples of great design engineering or technological innovation.

Not every realm of design culture can be collected and displayed. Personally, what are your areas of concern?
The new Cooper-Hewitt’s Acquisitions Plan which I have worked on with the curators, focuses largely on the twentieth-century: we aim to fill in the gaps and move forwards. The Hewitt sisters were not in love with their own era, and so our holdings in art nouveau and turn-of-the-century applied art and furniture need strengthening.

And what is your official mandate?
My mandate comes from the Smithsonian, of which the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum is of course a part. My mandate is to reassert the pre-eminent role of the institution; to champion the institution on a metropolitan and national level as the only museum in the USA devoted solely to design. To engage new audiences; to ‘dust off’ our image; and unlock the potential of this remarkable institution.

Does education outreach play a role in this?
Yes. Education is at the core of our mission: either formally, in training programs working with teachers at a national level, or ‘informally’, by helping the public make better informed decisions about the built environment and question design choices that have led to the creation of the products and services they use.

Some exhibits are designed to be blockbusters — culture as star, so to speak—some are didactic and designed to educate a limited audience. What do you want to achieve through an exhibition?
Thompson: Stimulated, entertained and enlightened people walking back down 5th Avenue, uplifted after 2 hours in our exhibitions, promising to themselves to become members and return for more soon!

Do you have a formula for how to achieve this? Can you create a program that will make such a large constituency as the New York public happy?
Looking back through the records, scale plays a part in it: New York is all about scale. Our larger shows have been most successful – the Triennial was extraordinarily successful both critically and popularly. Programming ‘mix’ is key. So, too, is the maxim ‘Don’t get stuck in a rut’. Keep your ear to the ground and react quickly. Our curators Ellen Lupton and Donald Albrecht both have that uncanny ability to pick up on the Next Big Thing.

The Cooper Hewitt has been known for exhibitions that examine important objects of design. During the recent decade the range of what constitutes these objects has been extended to include graphic design, admittedly an ephemeral art. How do you view graphic design, typography, books, posters, etc., in the continuum of design history? And what importance does this have under your watch at the Museum?
Graphic Design is often treated as the poor match-girl of the visual arts - barely granted wall space unless as ‘graphic arts’ in poster form. In my view, Communication design carries just as much weight as architecture or industrial design. What happens if you cannot design a road sign effectively? Crash!

Designers can learn how to make better road signs, but what do you want the public to take away from an exhibition of graphic design?
I guess it depends entirely on the aspect of graphic design being explored.

It might be: ‘the world has changed as rapidly and dramatically in the past fifteen years as it did in the preceding 1,000’.
‘I understand now how the medium can manipulate or enhance my understanding of the message’.
‘This is a career I would like to enter when I’m grown up.’

Can an exhibition or a collection make a marked change in the way the mass public appreciates design?
Yes I believe it can. Not immediately with a mass audience, but longer term, as those images and messages filter into the mass media.

Consider the impact of the traveling Charles and Ray Eames exhibition in Europe last decade, curated by Cooper-Hewitt’s Donald Albrecht and shown here at Cooper Hewitt in 1999. Sure, it helped that in London in 1998 the Eames show had Gucci as sponsor, but within five years, British TV commercials for automobiles and life insurance ads all seemed to feature the furniture and mid-century modernist lifestyle that had previously been known only amongst a smallish band of architects over the age of fifty.

That raises an interesting point. Since the Cooper Hewitt is dependent on outside funding does there always have to be a mutually beneficial connection between exhibit and funder? Do some projects suffer because of this?
An arts or education project will suffer if the sponsor tail wags the artistic dog. But that does not mean that both parties cannot have fun creating subsidiary, tangential spin-offs that benefit an organization or art form.

Museums, universities and hospitals, the world over, are dependent on private income. How do hospitals deal with supporters whose generosity is determined by the illness of a late relative? How do you steer their support into new, under-funded areas in need of medical research, when they want to support relatively well supported areas? The skillful not-for-profit directors must ensure that the strategic vision and mission are met and deliver ‘mutually beneficial connections’ to supporters.

What do you predict will be the under your directorship?
What I predict and what I hope! I think the place will be better known on an international and national stage. I predict that our premises will change — some way or another — we will push or twist the envelope of our space in order to create more flexible public spaces.

Next year we will be unveiling a major new gallery space for our Collection. The year after, I hope to open a digital or screen-based design ‘studio’ space in the basement. We’ll then be the analogue and digital design museum!