The director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum—the most prestigious design museum in the United States—abruptly resigned last week. The New York Times reports that Caroline Baumann was forced to quit after a probe into her September 2018 wedding.
Following a staff complaint, the Smithsonian’s inspector general investigated how Baumann, who is a member of the Fast Company Impact Council, acquired both a dress and venue for her wedding. The cocktail dress Baumann wore was commissioned from Brooklyn designer Samantha Sleeper. Sleeper advertises rates for dresses starting at $3,000 on her site, but charged Baumann $750. According to Sleeper, agents insinuated that Baumann had used her stature at Cooper Hewitt to negotiate a lower rate, though Sleeper and emails of the exchange that she provided both refute this claim.
As for the venue, Baumann celebrated her wedding at the 16-acre LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton. The property is run by a nonprofit founded by textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen, who also lives on the property. Use of the property was offered to her free by Larsen, who won a Cooper Hewitt Award in 2015. His nonprofit was also allowed free use of a conference room at Cooper Hewitt for board meetings.
The New York Times points out that while Cooper Hewitt isn’t technically a government entity, the Smithsonian was founded by the government, and its staff follows a strict code of conduct, including that “[e]mployees must not engage in private or personal activities that might conflict, or appear to conflict, with Smithsonian interests, such as using Smithsonian employment for private gain” or “[give] preferential treatment to any person or company for any reason.”
The museum confirmed that Baumann stepped down in an emailed statement but declined to share the circumstances of her departure. “Baumann has been a passionate voice for design, and much was accomplished during her tenure,” the statement reads. “Dr. John Davis, Smithsonian Provost, is serving as Interim Director while a search is conducted for a new Director.”
During her tenure, Baumann was key in modernizing and revitalizing Cooper Hewitt. She oversaw a rebranding and $91 million revamp to the museum, adding thousands of square feet of exhibit space and many interactive components, that opened in late 2014 to wide praise. As architecture critic Julie V. Iovine wrote for The Wall Street Journal in early 2015 after its launch, “Fully embracing the complexities of its multifaceted identity and the realities of design today, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is more engrossing than ever as it plunges ahead in the 21st century.”