At the Paris World Fair of 1900, W.E.B. Du Bois used groundbreaking statistical graphics to document the accomplishments of Black Americans and life inside “the Veil” of systemic oppression. The Library of Congress will lend a selection of these rare data visualizations to Cooper Hewitt’s Recharting Modern Design exhibition, allowing visitors to see them in person for the first time in 120 years. The data graphics of W.E.B. Du Bois will appear in dialogue with decorative objects from the fair, connecting Du Bois’s “color line” to the “whiplash line” of Art Nouveau. What is the enduring power of these graphics today?
The 1900 Paris World’s Fair trumpeted the possibilities of technological, aesthetic, social, and economic advancement to a global audience. The groundbreaking series of data visualizations W. E. B. Du Bois and his students at Atlanta University made for the installation, titled the “American Negro Exhibit,” seized upon the narrative of progress projected by the fair to claim a place for Black Americans. These diagrams celebrated the social and economic uplift achieved by Black Americans since emancipation while critiquing the effects of institutionalized racism.
This exhibition highlights these significant 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. Through thematic groupings, the exhibition calls attention to how the progressive image of the fair was inequitable—reserved for the predominantly white, European artists, manufacturers, and audiences—and concealed the power mechanisms of nationalism and imperialism that drove this spectacle of progress.
Furniture, metalwork, ceramics, drawings and photographs will transform the second floor of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum into early 20th century Paris in two parallel and complementary exhibitions, “Hector Guimard: How Paris Got Its Curves,” opening Nov. 18, and “Deconstructing Power: W. E. B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair,” opening Dec. 9. Presented side by side, these exhibitions examine the historical significance and contemporary resonance of Hector Guimard’s work, alongside the creativity and innovation on display at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, including a selection of groundbreaking data visualizations by W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the first Black Americans to ever participate in a European World’s Fair. On loan from the Library of Congress, it will be the first time that Du Bois’ work has traveled since 1901.
“These significant exhibitions continue Cooper Hewitt’s work to recontextualize and reframe key voices that both shaped or were left out of our known narratives of design history,” said Maria Nicanor, director of the museum. “It was very important to us that these two exhibitions be presented together, to provide visitors the context to both admire the visual beauty and understand the historical complexities of the objects on display. I’m particularly excited to have W. E. B. Du Bois’ powerful work on view. The presentation of his work, as well as Guimard’s, clearly illustrate that design is not—nor has ever been—neutral.”
Deconstructing Power: W. E. B. Du Bois at the 1900 World’s Fair is made possible with major support from Denise Littlefield Sobel. Additional support is provided by The Felicia Fund.
The exhibition will be on view from December 9, 2022 through May 29, 2023 at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street, NYC.