The Power of Maps
Cooper Hewitt Museum

Biber Architects designed “The Power of Maps,” with graphic design by Pentagram, as an exploration of the significance of maps as instruments of communication, persuasion and control for Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Design. The Cooper Hewitt, located in the Andrew Carnegie mansion on Museum Mile, is a notoriously difficult context for exhibitions. The landmark building and interiors are virtually impossible to alter or fasten anything to, demanding freestanding strategies and bold elements to compete with the dark interiors.

The exhibition presented more than 400 historic and contemporary maps dating from 1500 BC to the present. It opened with an overview of the richness and variety of maps, and subsequent sections showed how points of view are established in maps that subjectively inform, persuade and direct users. Visitors were encouraged to explore maps’ agendas in order to fully understand their ostensibly “objective” contents. The exhibit ended with maps concerning the crises of our times – health care, pollution and biodiversity.

Biber Architects worked with Cooper-Hewitt staff and curators to create an exhibit that reinforced the theme and complimented the material. The maps were displayed on folding panels that echoed the forms of paper maps while providing information, insights and direction.

The design was based on a fundamentally tactile and visual map reference – folding – and allowed the content to surprise and engage the visitor. The exhibit functioned as both a reassurance and a challenge to preconceived notions.

The exterior sign for the exhibition ran along the fence around the Carnegie Mansion which houses the Cooper-Hewitt collections. We created a “folded” sign that was both symbolic and functional. Creased and dog-eared like a road map, it was easy to read from a vehicle travelling down Fifth Avenue. The background map image was Route 66 spanning from New York to San Francisco.

“The Power of Maps” received a Federal Design Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was included in the Art Directors Club 72nd Annual, the Type Directors Club/TDC 38 Annual, and the AIGA Communications Graphics Show. We also received a Silver Medal for the exhibition design in the Industrial Design Excellence Awards sponsored by Business Week magazine and presented by the Industrial Designers Society of America.