Border Wall in Tijuana, Mexico
Sarah A. Leavitt Border Wall in Tijuana, Mexico

This month, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., opened its first exhibition since 2019, one has that been five years in the making. Originally scheduled for May 2020 following renovations to NBM's Great Hall, The Wall/El Muro: What is a Border Wall? along with the museum's reopening were delayed during the pandemic. The resulting interactive exhibit, curated by cultural historian Sarah A. Leavitt and presented in both English and Spanish, excavates the design and infrastructure around the U.S.–Mexico border wall, asking visitors to consider its history, purpose, and wide-reaching impacts. "It's not just a story of our border, it's a story of how we build infrastructure to separate us from other people," Leavitt says.

The exhibition also marks the institution's focus under the leadership of its new president and executive director Aileen Fuchs, now six months into the role. "These are the exact kind of issues and the exact kind of space that the National Building Museum is going to be in," Fuchs says. "Our mission is to look at the built environment, make it relevant, make it understandable to people: It's the places you live and work and play. When we think about the border wall as an infrastructure project, this is one of the most significant built environment issues of the past century."

courtesy Elman Studio

The exhibition stretches across five rooms, each bisected by a slatted wall evoking the border and divided by low-slung entryways illuminated with harsh fluorescent lights. "I want you to think about whether border walls are intended to make you comfortable," Leavitt says. A two gallery–long timeline runs throughout the first half of the exhibition, tracking U.S. immigration law, physical border construction, and the fears "that have helped determine the changes in our border infrastructure over time," according to an exhibit description. Posts planted alongside the timeline present visitors with visual data and infographics on border changes over White House administrations, tracking the numbers of border patrol agents, miles of wall built, numbers of people in detention centers, and more.

"I wish it were more different," Leavitt says. "The wall and the border infrastructure have been a collaborative project over many, many presidents over the last 100 years."

courtesy Elman Studio
courtesy Elman Studio

The installation also includes art, poetry, animations, and soundscapes that present a multifaceted understanding of the border, one of Leavitt's aims. "What is happening on our border, especially the U.S.–Mexico border, in our name, should be and must be something that we all care about and that we all pay attention to," she says. "When I first started working on this show, the refrain 'Build a wall' was in the news all the time, President Trump was talking about it a lot, and many people I was talking to didn't seem to understand that we already had a wall."

Photographs and objects—including a full-size section of the border fence that once stood between Calexico, Calif., and Mexicali, Mexico—gives visitors an understanding of the wall's physicality and framework. "I tried to think about infrastructure in as broad a way as possible," Leavitt says. "We're looking at [a] 'borderplex,' this whole border industrial complex of drones, surveillance towers, water irrigation facilities, lights on posts, built infrastructure, and also invisible drones, surveillance balloons, and infrared cameras."

View of El Paso, Texas from Juarez, Mexico
Sarah A. Leavitt View of El Paso, Texas from Juarez, Mexico
United States Border Patrol hiring poster
Sarah A. Leavitt United States Border Patrol hiring poster

The Wall/El Muro also highlights the museum's attention to sustainable practices, outlined further in its recently launched Climate ABC action program. Nearly all—95%—of the exhibition was built with reused materials from previous installations. "We are a private nonprofit. We're not part of the federal government system of museums, [and] we save our all materials as much as we can," says Cathy Frankel, vice president of exhibitions and collections. "As much as we can with our exhibitions, we're reusing things. [We use] them smartly the first time so that they're not full of nails ... and use our space efficiently."

NBM will house The Wall/El Muro through November 2022, using it to anchor accompanying programming and discussions. "What I really want you to think about is that our border looks the way that it does because we've built it that way," Leavitt says. "It's not inevitable, it didn't have to look that way, and it doesn't have to continue to look that way."

The Wall/El Muro: What is a Border Wall? will run through Nov. 6, 2022, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Cost of entry is $10 for adults and $7 for ages 3–17.

courtesy Elman Studio