Exploring the Smithsonian Design Museum collection with timelines and tags


Code: JavaScript, D3

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, looks after a collection of over 200,000 objects of historic and contemporary design: from bird cages and a 'two-horned' cap, to 3D printed glass and folding bicycles. Their digitised collection stretches through time and across geography. What are the various themes and common threads running through the collection? Can we visualise them?

While the museum has traditional categories in their data, like 'designer' or 'material', in this project I explored repurposing tags applied to items, for example: ‘birds’, ‘black and white’, ‘symmetry’, ‘overlapping’, ‘coffee and tea drinking’, and ‘communication’. These tags represent themes extending across the different museum departments, stretching over different cultures, materials, times.

I used a custom collage-like layout to arrange the collection data, showcasing the visuals. Organising the data in timelines makes it possible to trace how a concept or idea has been visually expressed across time. Bringing objects from very different places together in these visualisations encourages serendipity and unexpected juxtapositions.

You can read more about this work in the blog post Exploring the Cooper Hewitt collection with timelines and tags on the Cooper Hewitt Labs blog, or my more detailed thesis chapter which includes evaluations with the museum curators.

‘Coffee and tea drinking’ timeline: designs in the collection stretch from 1700 to the present with a great diversity of forms and styles, elaborate and minimal.

‘Water’ timeline. Here there are many different ways of thinking about water: images of garden plans with fountains and lakes from the 16th–18th Century, or modern interventions for accessing and cleaning water in developing countries. Contrasting representations (landscape painting to abstracted pattern) and functions (drinking to boating) stretch between.

‘Black & white’ timeline detail, Cooper Hewitt data

‘Personal environmental control’ timeline: a dry juxtaposition of these decorated fans against modern Nest thermostats.

‘Squares’ timeline