El Paso Museum of History

El Paso

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. The design team, working with the museum's researchers, gave shape to these contributions 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 carry the story 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 narrative.

Exterior of Oral History Mini-Theaters

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.

For the people and by the people: The museum historically had difficulty in attracting the Latinx community to their museum. To address this issue it adopted a methodology that would prove welcoming. Over 90% of the exhibit wall space is dedicated to oral history content. 

Ongoing Relationship with Audience: 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.

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.

First-Voice Exhibit: 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.

Co-Creation with Local Artist: Apart from the images, artifacts and stories that were donated by the community, the designers sought the creative participation from the community. 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 workmanship.


AIGA Justified Award: https://www.aiga.org/justified-2012--case-study--neighborhoods-and-shared-memories

Press Review:

Exhibit brings to life the memories of two of El Paso’s first neighborhoods

El Paso Museum of History to Open Long Awaited Neighborhoods & Shared Memories Exhibit