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Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’s new director: ‘I see design as a great equalizer’

Maria Nicanor, the new director of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, wants to change how you think about design. First step? Move away from the shiny object.

Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’s new director: ‘I see design as a great equalizer’
[Photo: Christine McLaren]

In February, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum announced the appointment of a new director. Maria Nicanor, a Spanish American curator and historian, joined the organization at a tumultuous time. Two years ago, Cooper Hewitt’s former director, Caroline Baumann, was forced to resign amid allegations of abusing her influence for personal gain, allegations she vehemently denied. (The design community rallied behind Baumann, and a donor even wrote the Cooper Hewitt out of her will in protest.)

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Nicanor, 41, is now tasked with steadying the ship and steering the museum into the future at a challenging moment for museums more broadly. The pandemic shrank their audiences, and the social justice movement threw klieg lights on all the ways museums and other cultural institutions espouse equality while serving as gatekeepers of the status quo. Cooper Hewitt, a federally funded institution with a tony address on New York City’s Upper East Side, embodies many of those contradictions.

Nicanor is on a mission to make the museum more inclusive, both internally in how it operates and externally in how it tells stories about design. As a former academic who has held curatorial roles at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, she is well poised to do so. A month into the job, she talks to Co.Design about her biggest goals at Cooper Hewitt, whether museums can ever be neutral, and how design should be an act of restorative justice, not just artifact-making.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Co.Design: What path led you to the Cooper Hewitt?

Maria Nicanor: I’m not a designer myself, but I’m trained in art history, architectural history, and design history, and have had a career that’s been mostly in museums with a stop in academia in between. My whole career has been these three big pillars of design and architecture, public service, and museum work—museum work being the medium that I choose to tell the stories that interest me. So the Cooper Hewitt, a national public museum, brings all of these pillars together.

I’m Spanish originally, and I am the product of a public system and have benefited from a public educational system and a public cultural and museum system. I know the value of that. I already drank the Kool-Aid on what good public systems can do. Cooper Hewitt is a rare institution where all of those things are present. So for me, it just made a lot of sense. It’s an exciting next move to be able to tell all of these stories that I think are important from this platform.

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You’re joining the organization at a difficult time, both for arts organizations generally and for the Cooper Hewitt specifically. What was attractive to you about this job right now?

Right now, all cultural organizations are in a moment of crisis. Museums have gone through a true reckoning—not that this wasn’t happening before the pandemic; let’s be honest, the crisis was there before. So for me, the transformational capacity and the national reach that this museum can have is what’s important right now.

We need to acknowledge the fact that museums are not neutral spaces. They never have been. But now we’re talking about it. We weren’t even talking about it before. When I was a more junior curator, there were conversations that would never have surfaced. Those conversations are happening now. At Cooper Hewitt [we want to] add to that conversation of how museums are evolving, what it means to be in a museum, and what harm they have done traditionally—the structure that they have perpetuated. If we can have a tiny little bit of influence on changing that conversation or adding to it and leading by example, that is as important to me as it is to have fantastic stories and exhibitions and programs about design.

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That’s an area of creativity that cultural managers in general are and should be excited about, because it’s part of our job. It’s a Gordian knot that needs to be axed, which I find attractive because we get to reinvent it.

Million-dollar question: How do you reinvent it?

It’s a slow process, and you have to be very realistic. It has a lot to do with the day-to-day interactions that you have with board members, with members of your team, with your staff, and bringing transparency to all of them. I’ve been part of many institutions that could’ve been more transparent with what they were doing. Infusing transparency into all the processes is at least a start.

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You’re in New York, but it’s also a national design museum. Who do you see yourself as serving?

We have a general audience that we call the design curious—people who are interested in design generally. A lot of our audience is also our designers who are active in the field. I would hope that we can appeal to people regardless of their geographical location who are interested in understanding the ways in which their lives are affected by design. That is a large swath.

I recognize that we’re physically located in a very specific city in a very specific neighborhood. So therein lies the challenge: You try to remain local, but at the same time make sure that you are representing a large country.

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We are talking to a varied audience and we need to offer varied points of entry for those conversations to happen. That means that we have a role of being a translator to all of those different audiences who have different needs, learn in different ways, and have different expectations of what a museum can do for them. I would hope that we can communicate to them that the power is in their hands to change the way that they interact with their environment via design.

That speaks to this idea that design isn’t an elitist pursuit, but rather something that is affecting absolutely everyone.

I have a pretty expanded definition of design in that way. I don’t think design is about products. I don’t think design is an object. Designs are systems, and they’re embedded everywhere in our life.

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Part of the message that we communicate is that you go through so many different design systems through your life. From the moment that you wake up to the time that you go back to bed, you’ve touched all of these systems that have been designed for you that are affecting [you] in positive and negative ways.

That’s where we are responsible for telling a narrative that lets people know what is designed. I want to make sure people know that talking about food systems is design. Talking about the infrastructure bill is design. Talking about housing prices is design. These are all systems that are directly affected by design thinking processes.

This system mentality rather than an object mentality is important to change. I hope that that’s what we will do with future programs and exhibitions. The Cooper Hewitt has a very successful history of doing that already, but building upon that storytelling is our job. We have to explain to people the design connections to housing, for example. And we have a vast collection [with which to do that]. It’s more than 200,000 objects starting from Egyptian times. We need to look at those historic collections as conversation starters. We use history in defining the future of design.

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To what extent do you see design as holding up a mirror to society versus actively shaping it?

One of the powers of design is that it can visualize for people what the possibilities are. [Then] you can start talking about them in a way that is much more tangible. Design is a mirror, but it also has direct consequences on problems [like climate change and inequity]. It has actually perpetuated some of those problems. Therein lies the danger of design.

So if we look at what design can do in the future . . . there’s a certain sense of using design as restoration: How can we not add to that but use it to restore? Design might not mean to create more stuff. Architecture doesn’t mean to build more stuff either. I would stress that idea of design as a restorative process for the current moment that we’re in, which is one of super acute, heightened crisis in so many ways.

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Are there certain areas of design where you see more progress being made than others—where design is indeed restorative?

Material research. My last position was at the Rice School of Architecture in Houston. I was in charge of public programs, but the benefit and the luxury of being in an architecture and design school was the connection with the faculty. They are the eyes and ears on the ground, and they are doing the groundbreaking work.

Now that needs to be implemented and taken up by industry. There are incredible initiatives between industries and universities that we might not be showcasing enough. There’s very good work being done there and around this idea of the circular economy. I look at that with optimism. Our role as a design museum is to surface those stories.

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As a curator and a historian, how do you distinguish between efforts that are effecting real change and those that are pure marketing?

We have to teach people to have a discerning eye. That’s part of what we should be doing as a museum. I’m not catering to consumers to buy or use a product. I’m catering to citizens who have needs. And we don’t want to commit the errors of the past with museums as tastemakers. So it’s not so much about punishing the bad examples. I think those should just be ignored. It’s about bringing forward the good ones. We’re like detectives, surfacing the good examples.

Can you grapple with this idea of museums not being tastemakers? By dint of putting something in a museum, aren’t you elevating it and telling people it’s important?

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The museum has a very different DNA in its origins than some other museum institutions. When the Hewitt sisters started it in 1897, it was meant to be an experimental space, a laboratory. It wasn’t the traditional idea of the museum. I’m going to hold tight to that concept because that’s what helps me change and do what I think the museum should do in this day and age. The idea that we get to take risks, that we get to experiment; we have that in our history, we have that in the DNA.

I also think it’s in the programming that we establish. I’ve done work in the past with museums that were very tightly connected with city governments, for instance, where you start to talk to cities about their policies. That’s where the role of museums starts to change and you start to be a convening space for conversations that can actually even impact policy. I always talk about the example of L.A. and how they have this position of a chief design officer [held by former Los Angeles Times critic] Christopher Hawthorne. What if we did that? What if we could have those conversations from a museum in New York? How would that affect the way that we work in the city?

One year from now, what do you hope to have accomplished?

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There’s a lot to do post-pandemic. What is the hybrid mode of existence going to be for us, and what of that model can we keep?

What about five years from now?

I would like for everybody to see the museum as a hub where [you go] if you want to know about the most cutting-edge ideas in design right now, not tied to a thing necessarily, but to a conversation. I would like for people to know that they can go to our website and watch a wonderful mini documentary on a really exciting designer somewhere across the globe or they can come and actually see our collections and our exhibitions in person at the museum.

What’s the most surprising thing about the job so far?

Being part of this larger network of organizations, the Smithsonian [which has 21 institutions, including a zoo and gardens]. I’ve always been in museums that stood alone. It is public, it has a public accountability system. We’re using federal and public money for everything that we’re doing. We fundraise ourselves as well, but there’s a whole sense of responsibility to the public that is huge. I value it very much, because it transmits a sense of civic responsibility with what you’re doing.

That’s especially interesting in the context of design, because design can often seem intimidating and not accessible to everyone.

I see design as a great equalizer. People might be a bit more intimidated if you ask them for their opinion on a Kandinsky painting, but if you ask them how they feel about their neighborhood, or where they live and the state of the sidewalks, you’ll get a lot of responses, and that’s design. People know more than they think about design because they’re experiencing it all the time. Everybody knows more about design than they realize.

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About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D

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