The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum Digitizes Its Holdings: Old Buttons Emerge From the Shadows

THE DAILY PIC: Old buttons—and 199,999 other objects—come to light with the massive digital project.

THE DAILY PIC (#1629): Okay, so this is as much fun as I’ve had in ages. (Hey, I’m an art critic). I’ve been clicking on the “random” button on the collection page at the Web site of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt design museum, and it yielded this page of old buttons. (Also, a piece of old Italian lace, a deeply weird arrowhead—I think it was for bird-hunting—and a Williams-Sonoma shopping bag from the late 20th century.)

Last week, the museum announced that it had finished an amazing campaign to digitize all 200,000 objects in its collection, which means that I’ve now checked out something like one two-thousandth of its holdings.

Generally speaking, I have mixed feelings about museums’ collection sites: There’s a real danger that the images on them might replace the actual objects in the hearts and minds of visitors. But, especially in the case of a radically mixed collection like the Cooper-Hewitt’s, there’s also a sense that surfing the website gives a lot of the same exploratory pleasure that the great old, pre-blockbuster museums used to give, when they just expected you to wander and wonder among their endless displays of objects. (The Victoria and Albert Museum in London still gives maybe the world’s greatest example of this kind of pleasure.)

The great thing about museums of design and decorative arts is that they appeal to such a wide range of tastes and interests, since almost all of us have long exposure to, and strong feelings about, the everyday objects around us.

My clicking stopped at this image in honor of my mother-in-law, Lucille Hogg (Sr.), who has collected and studied more buttons than most of us have opened and closed on our shirts. In doing that, she has brought to bear the same types of expertise and connoisseurship that we art historians deploy in studying Raphael and Rembrandt and Cindy Sherman.

At Cooper-Hewitt, chances are that, somewhere out there, someone else’s mother-in-law has similarly strong feelings and deep knowledge about some of its other 199,999 objects. Now she can see them.

For a full survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.


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