The Wall/El Muro

The Wall/El Muro: What Is a Border Wall? examines the U.S./Mexico border from its physical presence to the conceptual and symbolic role it plays in defining our nation.


MGMT. design

Practice Area


The National Building Museum


The Challenge

The Wall/El Muro: What Is a Border Wall? examines the U.S./Mexico border from its physical presence to the conceptual role it plays in defining our nation. The exhibition looks at examples of borders around the world, the history of the U.S./Mexico border, and current conditions defining the border experience. Through physical artifacts, images, texts, sound pieces, and data visualizations, the exhibition design strives to help visitors see how the physical border wall makes real—and internationally consequential—something that is otherwise relatively symbolic.

Project Vision

The gallery’s five rooms organize the content into larger themes: ‘Inventing the Border’, ‘Building the Border’, ‘Listening to the Border’, ‘Crossing the Border’, and ‘Questioning the Border’. Each is separated by a threshold ‘portal’ space—a short corridor with lowered ceiling, intense fluorescent lights, and provocative questions in facing languages along its sides. These act as compression points, syncopating the viewer’s experience of the exhibition as a whole and focusing the narrative inward. These questions speak to notions of The Wall as both a physical barrier as well as a conceptual construct defining our country.

On the floor, traversing the full gallery, is the abstract line of the border from coast to coast, with significant sister cities called out along its length. It goes through the portals and passes around and sometimes under the exhibition walls. The line leads visitors through the space, and potentially calls upon them to also ponder its weight: it’s just a line—which can so freely be crossed here—yet it could not be more consequential.

The exhibition narrative is presented on a series of ‘ghost walls’—gray slatted partitions that layer the space and evoke the structures of the U.S./Mexico barrier walls. These ‘fences’ are both porous, allowing visitors to see through to subsequent galleries, and restrictive, dividing rooms and placing visitors visibly opposite yet separated from each other. Referencing the graffiti and art painted on the real border wall, the exhibition didactics are attached to and in some cases wrap around the slats, giving a lenticular view to the information as the visitor walks by. Along the timeline section, the lenticular duality functions to separate English and Spanish texts.

Data visualizations throughout give physicality to abstract numbers and facts. ‘Posts’, tall vertical markers in three of the rooms, function as large bar graphs depicting the build up of the wall in various ways over years and presidencies. An animated video shows the concept of the ‘borderplex’—the combination of checkpoints, DEA offices, ports of entry, and sanctuary cities, that creep into the US interior, pervading the whole country with a sense of national security and need to protect or deflect it. Each is drawn as a separate map, accumulatively layering to reveal a complex and interconnected web that comprises the border state.

The last room questions the role of the border and showcases many provocative pieces made by artists, musicians, and architects. Centrally highlighted are the pink teeter totters by architects Rael San Fratello that were briefly installed at the border wall between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez—two of which are replicas that visitors can hop on and experience the stark imposition a physical wall is to the spirit of human interaction and play.

Introductory wall with applied lenticular title, and first portal question to visitors “What is a Border?”

Elman Studios

First gallery ‘Inventing the Border’: border marker models, timeline, data post with miles of wall built under different administrations, and floor graphic with border and sister cities.

Elman Studios

Design + Execution

All physical elements were wholly constructed from raw materials reclaimed from the previous installation in the space significantly decreasing both material wastage and fabrication budget. Construction was realized by the in-house team at the National Building Museum.

View from the second gallery through a portal to the first, with ‘data post’ framed beyond.

Elman Studios

Gallery, ‘Crossing the Border,’ with 3D data graphic depicting migrant deaths in Arizona. The abstracted border line traverses the exhibition, through portals and under walls, evocative of the border itself

Elman Studios

Case containing discarded belongings with statistics on current border crossings beyond. Behind the slats is a border landscape. The inverted image suggests an alien and alluring place–both beautiful and perilous.

Elman Studios

Portal view through to an audio installation room. Atmospheric sounds captured in the desert ambiently texture a mural image of the Rio Grande. Included are recorded interviews with migrant children

Elman Studios

In “Questioning the Border,” works by artists that critique the border are highlighted. Pink Teeter totters are installed so viewers can interact with the exhibition as they ponder the border.

Elman Studios

Project Details
The Wall / El Muro exhibit intrigues a sense of wonder to the visitors. Created with an engaging play of place and barriers, with compression points as you transition through to enhance the effect of what many have experienced.
Juror 1
This project was both conceptually sound and beautifully executed. It tackles and important topic in a way that really brings the visitors into the experience. The ghost walls offer a glimpse of what is beyond why firmly planting visitors on opposite sides. The use of Spanish and English in the exhibit is effective for the subject matter.
Juror 2
Design Team

Sandra Wheeler (exhibition design)
Sarah Gephart (exhibition graphics design)
Wei-Hao Wang (animation)


Matter Architecture Practice (architecture)
Sarah Leavitt (curator)
Caitlin Bristol (exhibitions developer)
Robin Ragan (translator)
Full Point Graphics: Hiroshi Kumagai (fabricator)
Print Exhibit Partners: Michael Larson (fabricators)

Photo Credits

Elman Studios

Open Date

November 2021