American by Belief, Howard Revis Design’s latest special exhibition at President Lincoln's Cottage is a small exhibition that tackles a big immigration discussion stemming from Lincoln's recognition of immigrants as one of America's greatest resources and its best hope for the future. President Lincoln's Cottage sought to present not just how Lincoln grappled with immigration but to show how the same issue affects us now. Rather than “tell about” immigration issues today, the design team found a highly participatory and engaging means of creating a dialog, visitor to visitor.
The exhibition draws its name from the unique immigration stories it reveals. Visitors read oral histories collected from Naturalization Ceremony participants who received citizenship on the grounds of the Cottage itself and are now American by belief if not by birth; they link bands on a map and post stories to cards displayed on the wall to tell their own stories of why they or their family came to America; they read others' stories. The bands and cards correspond to broad categories the visitor chooses; there are iconography and color-coding for family, for jobs, for refuge and asylum, for freedom and the rule of law, for education, and by force. Deceptively simple as a design concept, the exhibition reaches the heart and soul of what immigration—past and present—means to people.
Steeped in the Civil War era, President Lincoln's Cottage and its Visitor Center are both restored 19th-century houses on the grounds of the Soldier's Home in Washington, DC. "The exhibition's design and its content linking immigration as Lincoln knew it to immigration today are closely interwoven," says Nina Reck, one of the project designers, "but, this was not meant to look like a historical exhibit." In line with the center's front door, the exhibition's bold American by Belief introduction panel draws visitor's past historic photos and drawings toward its distinctive typography and large-scale photographs of immigrants from both Lincoln’s era and our own. A vibrant and slightly unusual color palette helps American by Belief achieve a very modern feel, despite stepping back and forth between centuries.
Because immigration is a complex issue, getting the tone and message of the exhibition right was a big challenge. "When we first got this assignment, determining the scope of the content was daunting," says Elizabeth Eubank, Howard Revis' content developer, writer and project manager who tackled an enormous amount of information and numerous perspectives.
The team experimented with a lot of different ideas and a variety of organization approaches, including infographics conveying copious data about immigration, before arriving at the central theme using the map and cards as a blank canvas where visitors themselves would expand the content by tracing global journeys and writing immigration stories. Although the team considered digital installations, they opted to spend the relatively small budget on developing the custom graphics used for the cards and map. "The map is a finite thing with starting points and ending points, while the cards allow freeform responses. They are user-friendly and it's easy for a visitor to understand that he or she might include their immigration story even if it was generations ago."
The exhibit gallery, just 260 square feet, presented a distinct spatial challenge with graphics, the map and the wall of cards needing to be scaled appropriately; American by Belief offers a lot to see and ponder in the small space. The map is the exhibit's central feature and it pays particular attention to the user experience. “The map itself went through many design generations," says Nina Reck, "finally achieving a user-centric conceptual form that was driven more by accessibility issues than accurate global adjacencies. With the United States at the center surrounded by the continents, most people can reach from the edges to the center with different-sized bands to mark a journey. A lot of thought and some (fun!) play with numerous samples to see what would work best, went into selecting the bands." Visitors have fun with the map, too; it fills up quickly. "We returned briefly to the idea of installing a camera above it to continually capture its changes, but abandoned that in favor of staff taking photos periodically before clearing bands away to leave a fresh field," says Elizabeth Eubank.
A sense of community and considerable emotion permeates the show. The exhibit seeks to not only deepen our understanding of Lincoln's views on immigration but to help today's audience describe the continuing issue of immigration in our time. By collecting the stories on the cards—many of which are quite poignant—and photographing the map with bands in place, The Cottage documents the enduring reasons why people continue to immigrate to the United States.
Project Name: American by Belief
Client: President Lincoln's Cottage
Location: Washington, DC
Open Date: 2015
Project Area: 260 sq ft
Design Team: Tracy Revis (principal), Nina Reck (graphic designer), Santosh Dhamat (3D designer, creative director), Elizabeth Eubank (content developer, writer, project manager)
Fabrication: CSI Graphics, Kearney & Associates
Project budget: $45,000
Photos: Santosh Dhamat, Howard Revis; Nina Reck, Howard Revis (American by Belief logo)