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.
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.
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.
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)