Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the
competition, in which an esteemed jury
identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear,
compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design
thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on
“Neighborhoods and Shared Memories” (Nuestros vecindarios y sus memorias) is a community-sourced exhibit that
empowers its members to tell the story of their neighborhoods in their
own words. Researchers from the design team, working with the museum's
researchers, gave shape to this collection through the grouping of
stories and artifacts around themes that emerge from the collection
overall. This is a significant break from the more traditional museum
exhibits where a curatorial team establishes an exhibit’s story lines;
with “Neighborhoods and Shared Memories,” the community is the curator.
We worked with a plurality of voices that do not necessarily build a
single narrative, but rather create a web of themes that will carry on
for the museum as the project continues, in future iterations, to
examine El Paso's other neighborhoods and districts. Like a casual visit
to a neighborhood, where locals approach you and tell you local history
from their perspective, the emphasis is on the experience of
interpreting a community through the images and stories its members
share. The “take away” for the visitors lies in the broadness and
authenticity of the experience, and less a linear, certifiable
The exhibit is, partially, temporary. Every 18 months, a new set
of neighborhoods will be on display. The exhibit furniture and casework
is designed to be entirely adaptable to new configurations of artifacts
and media. Eighty percent of the exhibit space is fitted for this
interchangeability. The strategy saves money and material for future
neighborhood exhibits. The “fixed” displays in the museum are minimal,
drawing from the Museum’s own collections and giving an overall geographic
shape to the program:
The changeable portion of the exhibits include two display walls along
the longer sides of the gallery, an oral history theater in the center
and a “message wall” at the back of the gallery. Each of the display walls
is dedicated to one of the two “showcased” neighborhoods. Everything on
display comes from the community. On the two display walls, the
principal elements are large-scale murals, a linear display of
photographs, and cases and platforms for the display of artifacts. The
linear display of photographs is designed as a single gesture that spans
an entire wall. We internally call it the “shelf” because it aligns the
images along the bottom border. The pictures sit on this line like a
shelf. The shelf also contains
digital picture frames which allow for a continual display of more
images pulled from the archive and from new images that were recently
sent to the museum by community groups wishing to add to the exhibit.
The murals serve as visual markers for the organizational themes, while
the two murals that dominate the main exhibit space are commissioned
from artists working in the districts.
The exhibit is entirely bilingual.
$400,000 (design and fabrication)
On a number of occasions, the designer visited these neighborhoods and
spoke with the people that participated in the donations and the diverse
stakeholders of the community. The head exhibit designer is fully
bilingual and Latino himself, so communication was never hampered. It was
during these visits that we got the idea of using a mural artist. Block
after block, we saw murals without a single tag of graffiti because the
community respected them. We also saw wonderful examples of ironwork
that inspired the entrance gates.
The designers also photographed and documented the graphic language that
permeates the city. The type used for the heading of the display walls
was an interpretation of hand-painted signs that are so common in
shops around El Paso. The color treatments that the designer used for
the photomurals were inspired by similar treatments that we saw on
“lucha libre” (wrestling) posters and political flyers.
The central design challenge for “Neighborhood and Shared Memories” was
the task of managing the personal intricacies of a community-sourced
exhibit. This approach empowers the community in an entirely new way,
but it also complicates the process of developing the exhibit because of
the omission of a central curatorial role. Community sourcing does not
have the organizational capacity to edit multiple stories into cohesive,
accepted themes. The design team was charged with providing this form
and meaning to a plethora of voices that, in the raw state, might
resonate more as white noise. In order to give elocution and sense to
these multiple voices, we, the designer, deemed it necessary to make
explicit the parties involved in the creation of the exhibit: the museum
and the community. The design must clarify their separate roles in the
exhibit by making explicit their different processes and motivations. The challenge is to distinguish how these two parties differ.
Museum: In “Neighborhoods and Shared Memories,” the “community as curator” approach helps the El Paso Museum of History move closer to the
community it serves. In the past, there had been much debate about the
representation of underserved communities, in particular the Latino
community. To alleviate this point of contention, the museum literally
asked the community to participate in the process of making the exhibit
over its duration. The design of the exhibit must make evident the
museum’s process of collecting, researching and facilitating for the
community. This is where the museum’s voice is located. This dual
approach of the “museum as facilitator” and the “community as curator”
clearly assigns the different responsibilities of interpretation in the
exhibit display. The design must respect these boundaries by making them
evident. The execution of this is discussed in the “Strategies” portion
of the entry.
Community: Even with the community taking the “microphone,” so to speak,
the designer is still challenged with the responsibility of preserving
authenticity. The organization of these multiple voices, images and
artifacts cannot be superseded with another narrative or a singular
opinion from within the community—or any other order that is alien to
the community. This would violate the authenticity of the community’s
voice. This observation drives the design to show each piece of content
as part of the whole community. The collective characteristic of the
display is what provides it with an earned authenticity.
Strategies: All of the design decisions respond to the needs of the museum or the
community as presented in the “challenges” portion of this
entry form. Below we will show different design moves and
characteristics and explain how we deem that they serve both parties.
Multiples: The exhibit display always shows many images at once. Each donated
image is placed in a visual context that it is clearly part of a large
whole. The linear graphic (that we earlier called the “shelf”) is an
array of images that together make a 65- or 48-foot-long graphic panel—which
makes it the longest element in the entire exhibit. It shows how each
piece is part of the larger context.
Collecting: The graphic “shelf” and the “information desk” at the very
entrance of the exhibit show how the museum is a collector and facilitator
of the community. The entire archive of images is found in the
terminals. It is a digital version of “visual storage.”
Ongoing: The community can continue making contributions to the exhibit
as we speak. The website accepts new donations and they will be
displayed on the digital frames that are incorporated in the “shelf”
graphic. This feature is an expression of the museum’s mission to reach
out to the community.
Quotes over labels: The display walls are identified with the names of
the neighborhoods they contain. Below the headings of Chihuahuita
and El Segundo Barrio are quotes taken from the oral histories. There is
no “museum” text below the headings. The narration for the wall is
carried by the quotes, which are prominently displayed in speech bubbles—clearly marking them as the spoken words of a community member.
Local: Apart from the images, artifacts and stories that were donated by
the community, the designers sought the creative participation from the
community. For the display walls, we commissioned the local artist Jesus
“Cemi” Alvarado from Kalavera Studio to contribute two murals. For the
entrance of the exhibit, the designers worked with the Sanchez brothers,
local wrought iron artisans. Wrought iron gates are ubiquitous in El
Paso. This feature displays the material culture of El Paso and its
Big: During the collection process, the donor’s sense of pride was very
evident—though not necessarily explicit—in the objects they shared. It
was a big deal to donate these private objects and it was deemed a great
opportunity to show pride in their way of life. In response to this
emotion, the designer used scale to express the “emphatic” character of
this act of donating and let everyone see their own piece of the story. To
make things big was a celebratory gesture.
Participation: The entire exhibit hinged on community participation, so
it was natural for the visitor to participate with the exhibit as well.
In the images included, we featured these participatory design elements.
Apart from the positive comments we have received there was an event, as well as a visitor behavioral change, that we can point to as marks of success for
the design of this exhibit.
The event was the presence of Mannys Rodriguez, president of the
Chihuahuita Neighborhood Association, and Osvaldo Velez, president of the
Southside Neighborhood Association (El Segundo Barrio) at the cutting
of the ribbon for the exhibit. In the past, both of these associations
were critical of the museum for not including these communities and the Latinos of El Paso in the content of exhibits. The message that they
were receiving was that they were not a part of El Paso’s history. Their
presence at the exhibit shows their support for the exhibit and the opening of a better relationship between the community and the museum. It
also shows that the exhibit expressed the community’s voice
The most notable mark of success for us, the designers, was a behavioral
change we noticed in the visitorship. During the opening and in the
days that followed we visited the exhibit to make sure everything was working and to see how people reacted. As a designer, it often happened that I became
an impromptu tour guide to the exhibit, but this time the typical
visitor to the exhibit had a connection with the content so it was them
turning around and showing us around the exhibit. They become the tour
guide. They were the experts. Different visitors would grab you by the
arm to show you their pictures and share their stories. The exhibit almost became a performance space for storytelling and show-and-tell.
We also believe that—for the museum world—this exhibit is a
successful model of community-sourced exhibits. We consider that the
design was central in its success. The design decisions were essential
in making the content accessible and preserving its authenticity.
Without design, the pile of stories would become noise because of lack of
form, and they would lose the eloquence that the community demanded.
Learn more about the jury’s perspective on the competition and their
rationale behind the selections.
Section: Events and Competitions -
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