Design and Healing: Creative responses to epidemics
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York
December 10, 2022 – February 20, 2023
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum presents “Design and Healing: Creative Responses to Epidemics”, an exhibition examining design’s role in times of crisis. Organized during the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition will feature the work of communities and individuals who came together to aid each other, push for change, and create new spaces, objects, and services. Architectural case studies and historical narratives will appear alongside creative responses to current pandemics.
On view in the Design Process Galleries on the first floor from Dec. 10 through Feb. 20, 2023, the exhibition is curated and designed by MASS Design Group with Cooper Hewitt. “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.”
“Breathing is spatial,” said Michael Murphy, founding principal and executive director of MASS Design Group. “This fact has implications at the scale of the body, building, city, and planet. It turns out there’s an entire history of how buildings were designed in order to promote airflow and reduce the transmission of airborne diseases.” 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 marginalized communities.
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. From practical solutions to experimental prototypes, this recent work underscores the understanding that equity is essential to a healthy world.
“Design and Healing” opens with a multimedia installation designed by Samuel Stubblefield. This 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 organized around elemental forces connected to the prevention, treatment, and spread of disease: Light, Air, Water, and Insects. The exhibition will explore objects and architectural forms that have had a profound impact on human health over the course of history. For example, in the 19th century, John Snow’s maps proved that contaminated water caused the spread of cholera, leading to the design of sanitation systems in cities like London and New York. Fighting disease with masks and protective clothing is an ancient practice. When the COVID-19 pandemic triggered shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), many individuals came together to create masks, face shields, and other equipment. 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 visualize 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 U.S. 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.
The exhibition closes with Breathing Space in the museum’s light-filled conservatory. 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 installation aims to nurture feelings of comfort and intimacy in a time often marked by isolation and uncertainty. (This music comes from a new installation at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.)