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Cooper Hewitt’s new Design and Healing exhibition showcases creative responses to COVID-19

Zero-waste Scrub Set, 2020, Danielle Elsener

Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics, is an exhibition examining design’s role in times of crisis and opens today in the Design Process Galleries at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.

The Design and Healing exhibition was compiled during the unravelling COVID-19 pandemic and features the work of communities and individuals who came together to aid each other, push for change and create new spaces, objects and services.

These include exhibition collaborators the MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society) Design Group, which believes architecture has a critical role to play in healing and protecting of society. It set up a COVID-19 Design Response team during the pandemic, allocating resources to aid its partners, such as hospitals, on areas including limiting contagion and designing spaces for safe interactions.

GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center, 2015, MASS Design Group. Photo: © Iwan Baan

The museum says that epidemics – in the past and in the present – have triggered the discovery of new ways to treat and prevent disease while exposing gaps and failures in cultural, social, physiological and infrastructural systems.

“COVID-19, like other epidemics, has more intensely affected marginalised communities and the exhibition will use architectural case studies and historical narratives alongside creative responses to current pandemics,” it said.

Design innovations

Shaash Negative-Pressure Ventilator, 2021, Karnaphuli Industries Limited

The exhibition will show how in response to COVID-19, designers, artists, doctors, engineers and others collaborated to create design innovations that address community and individual needs.

Using practices such as open-source collaboration, rapid-response prototyping, product hacking and social activism, they created medical devices, protective gear, infographics, political posters, architecture and community services.

The message the exhibition wants to convey is that from practical solutions to experimental prototypes, this recent work underscores the understanding that equity is essential to a healthy world.

“Collaborating with MASS Design Group allowed Cooper Hewitt to explore design responses to the pandemic alongside experts in the field of design for health care,” said Ellen Lupton, Cooper Hewitt’s senior curator of contemporary design.

“The exhibition highlights hospitals designed by MASS Design Group as well as products, prototypes and graphics by dozens of designers, entrepreneurs and individuals. The exhibition features a variety of artifacts gathered by Cooper Hewitt’s Responsive Collecting Initiative, a process launched in 2020 to document the crucial challenges of our time.”

Multimedia installation using brainwaves

Design and Healing opens with a multimedia installation designed by Samuel Stubblefield whose video projection and soundscape uses brain waves to build a collective portrait, reflecting the growing trend to monitor human health with digital devices.

The introductory gallery also features sections on Information Graphics, Monitoring the Body, Social Distance, Mutual Aid and background about MASS Design Group and the work of its COVID-19 Design Response team.

The second gallery is organised around elemental forces connected to the prevention, treatment and spread of disease: Light, Air, Water and Insects.

Objects and architectural forms that have had a profound impact on human health over the course of history will be explored in the exhibition, for example, physician John Snow’s maps, which proved in the 19th century that contaminated water caused the spread of cholera, leading to the design of sanitation systems in cities including London and New York.

The exhibition will highlight how fighting disease with masks and protective clothing is not a new phenomenon but an ancient practice.

Creating PPE

Rebirth Garments Mask, 2021, Sky Cubacub, Rebirth Garments

It will show how many individuals came together to create masks, face shields and other equipment when the COVID-19 pandemic triggered shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE).

Among the works on view will be a display of masks that address the needs of various users, from a clear-fronted mask to help people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to visualise speech to masks that can be worn with a hijab or turban.

The exhibition will also feature masks that were used for activist messaging, including a mask worn during the US Open by tennis player Naomi Osaka emblazoned with the names of Black people who died at the hands of police, and artist Julia Kwon’s “Unapologetically Asian” mask, created to denounce anti-Asian violence.

The third gallery, Intensive Care, looks at technologies created to automate or assist human breathing or to protect caregivers from contaminated air. The medical devices on view in this section were designed at record speed to meet rigorous demands for safety, performance, cost and ease of manufacturing and distribution.

Breathing space

The exhibition closes with Breathing Space in the museum’s light-filled conservatory. For this, Cooper Hewitt commissioned Sahil Bagga and Sarthak Sengupta, designers in New Delhi, to create a sanctuary in the glass and metal structure built as part of Andrew Carnegie’s mansion in 1902. Sahil & Sarthak’s installation wraps the conservatory in cushions woven with long pom-pom yarns, reclaimed from the textile industry and woven by traditional daybed weavers.

The Breathing Space also includes an original soundscape composed by Stubblefield, featuring music derived from letters of gratitude to health care workers. The music comes from a new installation at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

The Breathing Space installation aims to nurture feelings of comfort and intimacy in these strange times often marked for many by isolation and uncertainty.

Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics runs until 20 February 2023.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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