The Making of a Modern Museum

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  • This personal and engaging history concerns the 1895 founding of New York City's Cooper Union Museum, the forerunner of the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum. Authored by a granddaughter of industrialist Peter Cooper, founder of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the story is related in the third person. She describes her parents' European roots and personal backgrounds, her grandfather's founding of Cooper Union as a free arts and sciences school for the working class in the city, and how the museum was established by her and her two sisters.
  • The author writes lovingly of her father, Abram Hewitt, an ironmaster who married Peter Cooper's daughter. Hewitt is viewed by his daughter as the champion of Cooper Union due to his leadership in guiding the school toward fulfillment of its mission to inspire and educate students in the arts and sciences. To demonstrate her father's emphasis on encouraging learning, she relates childhood experiences of being taken by him to art exhibitions and having the opportunity to explore his personal library.
  • When Cooper Union was built, Peter Cooper intended to use one floor as a museum, but insufficient funding necessitated that the area be rented to produce income for the school. However, after an anonymous gift allowed the space to be utilized as Cooper had envisioned, his three granddaughters, the author, Sarah Cooper Hewitt and Amy Hewitt Green, received approval from Cooper Union's Trustees to install the Museum for the Arts of Decoration, to be used by Cooper Union students taking art courses of instruction.
  • The museum opened in May 1895, and the sisters began the task of securing artifacts and materials for the museum. The author writes of their good fortune in having decorative casts selected by the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris donated by their parents. She also comments on support provided by her father when the U.S. Department of State had to be approached regarding formulation of a special tariff clause covering the importation of artists' original drawings.
  • Various manufacturers and dealers also came forward to assist the fledgling museum. Monetary gifts from benefactors such as George A. Hearn helped to purchase art objects, which helped to attract assistance from others. Another individual singled out by the author is J. Pierpont Morgan, who purchased a textile collection in Spain for the sisters to have for the museum. The author describes how other collections were acquired for the museum and comments on how various funding sources developed; she marvels at all the good fortune and sheer luck that contributed to the growth and use of the museum.
  • The author states that because of space restrictions, the museum made a general rule not to accept or exhibit objects produced later than the first quarter of the 19th century, the exception being pages from artists' sketch books dating from the last half of the 19th century, as Peter Cooper wished to have interesting objects displayed in hallways and along staircases. Other prized holdings mentioned by the author include the Reference Library, the Encyclopaedic Scrap Books and the 450-piece Decloux Collection.
  • Since the museum's holdings are actually handled by students, it operates differently than other museums: physical contact restrictions are eliminated, except those necessary to protect objects, as they are there to be worked with and even removed from their usual positions and placed in any light. Also, objects are arranged to form a practical basis for technical instruction, for ambulant lectures and class work; time restrictions are relaxed and labeling of objects is simplified.
  • The author describes the museum's modern layout and rules as encouraging to students, who produce and sell copies of the originals for an income. The museum then receives an income of ten percent, which helps it to continue being a practical working laboratory for students, providing them with free acquisition of knowledge in the arts, styles and periods.


  • Cooper, Peter 1791-1883
  • Hewitt, Abram S (Abram Stevens) 1822-1903
  • Morgan, J. Pierpont (John Pierpont) 1837-1913
  • Hearn, George A (George Arnold) 1835-1913
  • Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
  • National Collections
  • Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
  • Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration
  • National Museum of Design


Smithsonian History Bibliography


  • "Written for The Wednesday Afternoon Club" appears on the title page.
  • The author gives Peter Cooper's birth year as 1781; his actual birth year was 1791.
  • The date the author gives as the opening of the museum is in question, stating the museum opened in May, 1895. However, the museum was actually established in 1896 and opened to the public on May 26, 1897.

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Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Acquisitions
  • Art
  • Museum labels
  • Art museums
  • Architecture
  • Labels
  • Museums
  • History
  • Museum finance
  • Decoration and ornament
  • Benefactors
  • Donors
  • Education
  • Philanthropists
  • Art history
  • Decorative arts
  • Museums--New York City
  • Buildings
  • Museums--Educational aspects
  • Art--History
  • Art Museums
  • Art objects
  • Museums--Acquisitions
  • Museums--Collection management
  • Museum exhibits


  • New York City
  • United States

Physical description

Number of pages : 23; Page numbers : 1-23

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