The 2020 U.S. Census is of critical importance to New York City, particularly given the threat of an undercount among minority and undocumented populations. The Museum of the City of New York invited Isometric to create exhibition architecture and graphic design to present the work of leading contemporary artists and designers as part of an interactive, immersive, and inspiring experience. The museum also charged the design team with the goal of presenting historic artifacts and ephemera to educate the public on the importance of the census and its implications on public funding, as well as political representation.
Curated by Sarah Henry and Kubi Ackerman, the exhibition contains two galleries: an Anteroom that provides historical and narrative context and a Main Gallery that contains fifteen artworks by renowned data visualization artists, designers, and theorists, which use census data as raw material for profound storytelling. The exhibition's graphic identity employs intricate digital typography that animates into the words WHO WE ARE, symbolizing the part-whole relationship of New York City communities and the cumulative power of the census.
Ticker-tape typography runs throughout the two galleries, presenting key data about the city and creating visual connections between different elements of the exhibit. In the Anteroom, two long wall-mounted cases present original artifacts, including the first New York City census record which contains Aaron Burr’s signature.
The walls themselves juxtapose historical objects and visualizations with contemporary posters, animations, and custom infographics, underscoring the significance of the census and its implication on public funding and congressional representation. The team also designed a long table for communal learning, including a physical sliding interactive that allows visitors to explore changes in the city’s racial distribution over five decades. This creates a knowledge base for the digital artworks in the Main Gallery, offering visitors important context as to why the census matters.
The fifteen artworks in the Main Gallery are designed to evoke many different kinds of visitor experiences. The challenge was to create an architectural framework where visitors could experience these artworks—some of which were already available online as websites—in interactive as well as immersive ways. The centerpiece of the Main Gallery is a monumental, acrylic “X”—referring to the simple mark of self-identification on a census form and also denoting a sense of place and grounding.
The “X” is designed to display projections and prints in luminous suspension. It forms a translucent surface that evokes simultaneous experiences of exposure and privacy—a carrier for data art that translates millions of human stories into metaphorical representations of immigration origins, economic disparities, and networks of intimacy. The Main Gallery walls contain touchscreens and iPads, where some of the same artworks are repeated as interactive stations, offering visitors the opportunity to experience the artworks on a more personal scale specific to their own data. The result is a collective portrait of the city that engages civic responsibility through aesthetic delight.
The exhibit received funding from foundations and private philanthropists, and it received $150,000 in additional funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation once the conceptual design generated interest and excitement. Following the very well-attended exhibit opening, the museum has organized many popular public programs and educational workshops inspired by the exhibit, bringing together artists, data scientists, and public officials. It has also received a grant to offer audio tours in Chinese and Spanish.
“The interactive data visualizations are really the winning material. They are beautiful, simple, and understandable.”
“This exhibition does an amazing job from an identity and spatial organization point of view. The topic of data lives in charts, diagrams, animation, and art and could easily be overwhelming but isn’t due to strong spatial and graphic gestures. The various types of interactions from analog to digital are fun and intriguing.”
Waqas Jawaid, Andy Chen (partners); Eleni Agapis (design director); Hannah Meng (graphic designer); Yongkyu Hong (architectural designer); Elena Kim (intern)
Thane Lund (A/V consultant)
Parz Designs (fabrication), Full Point Graphics (vinyl printing and installation)