"Up From the People: Protest and Change in D.C." is a Community Gallery and Welcome Center at MLK Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. As part of an extensive renovation of their Mies Van der Rohe building, the Library created this permanent exhibition space on the 4th floor as a central element of their commitment to a more inclusive educational opportunity for residents.
The 8,000SF space encompasses displays, films, music videos, public feedback opportunities, historical narrative, and engagement opportunities. These areas provide vibrant, content-driven discussions where local members can learn about D.C.'s crucial role in the civil rights movement. This includes a National movement towards ending racism and the local culture, the drive towards representation in the federal government. A "community gallery" displays highly personal artifacts collected from D.C. residents that tell broader cultural and political history.
The building is a historically protected landmark, listed in the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites and the National Register of Historic Places. It is the only Library in the world designed by internationally-renowned modernist 20th-century architect Mies van der Rohe and one of the few examples of the International Style in D.C. The building, completed in 1972, was the first public place named in honor of esteemed Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Library is a civic landmark—a destination and gathering place for residents from across D.C.
The design strategy is derived directly from the architectural intent. Therefore, we create visual transparency through the exhibition to continue the Miesian concept of bringing natural light to the core of the building. We developed a series of bespoke armatures, using 1-inch tubular steel and oak veneered plywood as displays. With vibrant graphics and many opportunities for storytelling, the exhibits grab the visitor's attention and bring them into dialogue with the history in new and approachable ways. We worked with the fabricator to create different forms, including curved panels, which were difficult to achieve. The armature includes casework for objects, printed graphics on veneer, and places for tactile engagement. All areas have aides for people with low vision, and all media is captioned for those with hearing loss. Every aspect is accessible with special consideration for ease of use. The design includes embedded media that welcomes the public's participation, including interactions with Go-Go and Punk music videos, two local D.C. movements with wide followings.
Located at the entry space in the center between the two galleries is a Welcome area that features but video presentation and large interactive tables. The tables provide low-tech, hands-on places where visitors can share their stories. The prompts are social and creative, allowing visitors to learn from one another and connect past to present-day issues related to the exhibition's "big questions." The design is inviting, and there is a low barrier to entry, allowing visitors of all ages to participate.
Community Engagement and Programming: The Library's long-term engagement plan builds on highly successful interpretive programs. Artwork and documentation created through these projects will be included in the exhibition, and the methodology informs the Library's longer-term interpretation and engagement plan.
The design process included a robust period of community input before starting our work. We used physical prototyping and then later virtual interactions (due to the pandemic) to test the efficacy of the more developed design directions. Not only did this help us to test ideas, but it helped build a local constituency that would advocate for the exhibitions and bring others to participate. One example of this situation is our design concept for using an abstracted version of card catalogs to hold audience engagement cards tested very well during our community engagement. The users' enthusiasm for the prototype prompted the expansion of this section giving more opportunities for people to participate. Since opening in Fall 2021, the Library has collected many fascinating stories and shares them in the space as well as on an online platform.