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The Wall/El Muro exhibition challenges visitors’ understanding of US-Mexico border

The Wall/El Muro exhibition at the National Building Museum shows a seesaw that once straddled the US/Mexico border

The Wall/El Muro: What is a Border Wall? exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington DC, which opened at the weekend, aims provide understanding to an ever-growing structure, always in the news but never given suitable context.

The US-Mexico border, which has existed in one form or another since 1828, looms large on the landscape these days and is deeply embedded in the psychology of Mexicans and Americans.

It became world news during the Trump presidential campaign of 2016 and his subsequent presidency, as he sought to expand the barrier and make Mexicans pay for it. And curators want visitors to reassess why we have borders at all.

This is also a time when museums need to present the idea that ‘history should make you uncomfortable.’

Exhibition Curator Sarah A. Leavitt, Ph.D

The Wall/El Muro multi-media exhibition, its curators say, will provide a timely examination of the role of design, architecture, planning and engineering in today’s border issues and challenges, as well as the border wall’s many impacts. A sustainability statement says 95% of the exhibition was built with reused materials.

The year-long exhibition uses a broad range of photographs, objects, video and interactive discussion, which will offer visitors the chance to understand the 21st-century application of an ancient theme: building walls in the name of national security.

A timeline and soundscape set the scene

A timeline gives much-needed context to the US/Mexico border story

A specially commissioned soundscape of the area near the wall in Otay Mesa, California, sets the scene for the visitor and transplants them among nature there as they hear insects and wind but also the ever-present security drones.

They will hear the voices of local teenagers who have crossed the border and see a full-size section of border fence that once stood between Calexico, California and Mexicali, Baja California. They can also sit on a seesaw, which had straddled the wall, that connected children in the US and Mexico and was awarded Design of the Year 2020 by the Design Museum.

MuseumNext talks to exhibition curators

Here MuseumNext talks to Exhibition Curator Sarah A Leavitt, Ph.D and Paul Killmer, Director of Public Programs for the National Building Museum about the reasons behind the exhibition and it related activities.

Border wall and the Pacific Ocean, San Diego, California. Photograph by Sarah A Leavitt

What are the aims and objectives of the exhibition?

SL: This exhibition aims to provide a broader context for understanding the ancient theme of building walls in the name of national security. My goal is for visitors to learn more about the border wall and border infrastructure and to think deeply about some of the questions we raise: “What is a border?” Why do we have borders? “Why do we police them the way we do?” and “What work do borders do in the world?”

We’d like people to walk through this exhibition and come away thinking about the border in new ways. We’re hoping to open up the conversation and inspire people to want to learn more, read more, think more and talk more about borders.

It’s also important to me that people understand the vast collaboration that it has been to build our border infrastructure over the past century; that constructing our border in this way was not inevitable but rather the decision-making process of people, over and over again.

Why are you tackling this subject now?

Close-up of Deported Veterans Mural, Tijuana, Baja California. Photograph by Sarah A Leavitt

SL: The topic is timely right now, but it’s also evergreen given that the border has existed for centuries, and its evolution is constant. It’s great to provide a forum so that people can discuss and have a better understanding of what’s happening in the news. I also think it’s really interesting for people to think about borders during a pandemic. This is also a time when museums need to present the idea that ‘history should make you uncomfortable.’ We need to use our institutions – our museums – to lead the conversation and challenge visitors to think more critically about how “Borders are political agreements but also designed systems that affect peoples’ lives.”

What objects, photographs and video are included in the exhibition to tell the story of the wall and make it immersive?

SL: There are a wide variety of objects and photographs in the show. We have a piece of the border fence that was installed along the Baja California /California border from the 1950s through the 1990s. One of my favourite pieces is a painting by 1970s pop artist Peter Max that was installed on the border to welcome travellers.

We commissioned a special soundscape for one of the smaller galleries that was recorded on the border in Otay Mesa, California, in January and February of 2020, just a few weeks before the pandemic hit. It will give visitors a chance to stop and listen, to imagine that the border has come to them.

The most poignant thing in the show, for sure, is a collection of artifacts left behind in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona by migrants trying to make their way north. It’s a stark reminder that this is a story, ultimately, about people, even as we are telling that story primarily through infrastructure.

Other items include:

  • A compilation video of photographs from along the entire border
  • Animation showing how the Rio Grande (ostensibly the delineation of the official border in Texas) has changed course over time–literally changing the placement of the border.
  • Models of 19th century and 21st century border markers.
  • Photographs range from those that show the border–looking like a different planet from the way it looks now–a century ago, and more recent examples of what the wall looks like, some of which I took on my own three research trips down to the border.
  • Maps, charts, poetry, art installations and one of the original teeter totters that was installed on the border (one half on each side of the wall) in the summer of 2019.

What will the interactive programming include?

PK: The Wall exhibition complementary programming will focus on its presence, impacts and place in US history through interactive conversations with scholars, authors, educators and those who have made the journey. Audiences who attend these programmes, whether online or in-person, will be able to engage panellists during dedicated Q&A portions of each event.

What topics will be addressed?

PK: Topics in these public facing programmes will include a focus on the border wall’s impact on the environment and local communities, the ethics around designing structures of exclusion, and the connections between art and the border wall. We ground these discussions in our first programme in November/December with a history lesson about the US/Mexico border, its impact on the architecture and planning in the region, and the organic responses to its presence. Additional programming will celebrate how the culture of the US is made even richer through contributions of immigrant cultures.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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