Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
2 East 91st Street
New York, NY
Deconstructing Power: W. E. B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair places decorative arts from Cooper Hewitt’s permanent collection in dialogue with 20 innovative data visualizations that W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) created for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair to explore how design can both reveal and mask dynamics of power and equity.
Forty-seven countries participated in the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, each attempting to demonstrate to a global audience its cultural and economic progress through carefully crafted installations of the latest in art, imported materials, and cutting-edge innovations. For the Exhibit of American Negroes, Du Bois and his Atlanta University students made 63 hand-drawn diagrams that used shape, line, and color to showcase the success Black Americans had achieved despite facing pervasive racism in the United States and the global community. The data visualizations were created on presentation cardboard and conceived for a temporary installation at the fair. Given their fragile nature, the works will be rotated during the course of the exhibition.
This exhibition highlights these groundbreaking data visualizations, on loan from the Library of Congress, and, for the first time, will bring them into dialogue with the manufacturers and decorative arts also on display at the fair. Examples by Sèvres, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Emile Gallé illuminate how national styles were crafted; these examples also prompt a continued investigation of what and who defines a nation. Works by Carlo Bugatti, Adolf Loos, and Henry van de Velde call for deeper exploration of the imperial fantasies permeating modern design at the turn of the century.