Design Up Close
Three RISD alumni are working to make the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum relevant and accessible for students from coast to coast.
Kameko Branchaud MA 14, Halima Johnson 08 ID and Michelle Cheng MA 10 focus on design education at the recently reopened Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
With the recent reopening of the Cooper Hewitt and its accompanying name change to the Smithsonian Design Museum, the focus has shifted more toward education and community outreach, with the goal of serving a much wider audience than ever before. The museum on Manhattan’s upper East Side has become a mecca for visitors from across the country and around the world—a place where those interested in experiencing design up close can temporarily step into the role of designer.
“When the museum was closed for renovations [from 2011 to 2014], it gave us the chance to rethink the collection and how we want to present design to the world,” says Youth Programs Manager Halima Johnson 08 ID. “We envisioned a collection that was accessible and relevant not just for our core audience of design enthusiasts, but also for tourists, families and especially students.”
As one of three RISD alumni working to make that vision a reality, Johnson continues to adjust and improve upon the museum’s educational programs. Her new colleague Kameko Branchaud MA 14, who joined the team last summer, focuses on programs for toddlers and kids in the 5–12 age range, while Professional Development Manager Michelle Cheng MA 10 heads up the Smithsonian Design Institute (SDI), which works with school teachers from across the country.
“We’re really focused on design process and design thinking, not just on looking at objects,” Cheng explains. “How do designers work? And how does that work connect to the common core standard?”
Educators from a wide range of disciplines are introduced to the way designers think and are then encouraged to adapt the tools they’re given to suit their own school’s environment and curriculum. “And now that the museum has reopened,” adds Cheng, “we’re able to conduct on-site workshops that showcase our collection.”
Branchaud is helping to drive family programs like Design Tales, a Target-funded literacy offering for preschoolers. “It’s a free program run by educators,” she explains. “We also get guest designers—like lighting maker and RISD alum Lindsey Adelman 96 ID—to run hands-on workshops.”
All three women are passionate about art education and grateful for the many opportunities they were able to take advantage of at RISD. While Johnson majored in Industrial Design as an undergraduate, Cheng and Branchaud were both focused on learning to teach through the Teaching + Learning in Art + Design (TLAD) graduate program.
“I completed TLAD’s two-year museum education track, which allowed me to take what I learned in the first year of classes and put it to work during my second year in various work situations,” says Cheng. She worked for the Providence Preservation Society and the RISD Museum, taught an art history class at RISD and tutored at the Writing Center.
Cheng has made good use of those skills since earning her MA, first at the New Haven Museum and now at the Cooper Hewitt. “I came in with experience creating a curriculum, working with kids and docents, and interpreting objects for a larger audience,” she notes.
Branchaud’s RISD experiences include a Wintersession internship at the Providence art collective AS220 and work with TLAD’s Project Open Door program for talented, low-income high school students. After winning a grant from Graduate Studies, she was able to travel to Guam last summer to head up a community mural project. “Nothing went as planned,” she recalls with a laugh. “That experience really helped me to realize that I wanted the stability (and resources) of a museum job.”
In contrast, Johnson has always known that design, education and museums would somehow figure into her career. “I have a long history with the Cooper Hewitt,” she explains. “The programs I participated in here as a teenager had a huge impact on me. That’s how I became interested in RISD in the first place. Coming to work here in design education has completed a very large circle for me.”
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