You Can't Count if You're Not Counted: Exhibition Explores Census in NYC

translucent sculpture group Ekene Ijeoma’s "Wage Island" is a three-dimensional map of New York indicating parts of the city where housing is affordable based on wages. Courtesy of Studio Ijeoma.

As the 2020 census approaches, a timely exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York considers the history and meaning of America’s decennial head count.

Around four years ago, when the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) began considering an exhibition exploring the census, the 2020 decennial count had not yet become an explosive, headline-making political issue.  But for Joe Salvo, New York’s chief demographer, the importance of getting a full and fair count “was already weighing very heavily on his mind,” says Sarah Henry, the deputy director and chief curator at MCNY.  Henry’s conversations with Salvo about the census began while he was a consultant on MCNY’s immersive Future City Lab, a permanent exhibition deploying animated maps as a way to understand New York and its inhabitants. 

As the 2020 count approached, “The need to talk about data and why the census matters became more urgent,” says Henry. Accurate numbers—and a share of the billions in federal funding that comes with them—would be critical to New York’s future.  With so much at stake, “we thought about what role we can play as a museum to make this important act of civic participation compelling and interesting to the public,” Henry explains.

The resulting exhibition is Who We Are: Visualizing New York by the Numbers.  Supported by a $150,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Who We Are opens November 22 and runs through July 2020, encompassing the census counting period.  Designed by Brooklyn-based firm Isometric, the exhibition will feel like an immersive, multimedia installation.  Data visualizations, interactive digital experiences, and physical objects including works of art and historical documents will explain the origins and staggeringly complex mechanics of this constitutionally mandated population count and its attendant debates, controversies, and political uses.

map depicting immigrant populations on Manhattan's Lower East SideAmong the historic data visualizations on display are Lusk Committee maps from 1919, which used census figures to profile immigrant neighborhoods and inform law enforcement raids in areas allegedly populated by "anti-American" radicals.

Examples of different types of census forms from previous decades will reveal the near-constant evolution of census questions, many of which continue to have implications for historically undercounted communities.  “How we describe ourselves and what categories are available have changed over time and reflect the eras in which they were written,” says Henry.  Still, some historic material may feel relevant to the present moment.  Striking in this regard are the infamous Lusk Committee maps of 1919, which used census figures to isolate immigrant neighborhoods into “racial colonies.”  Based on this data, law enforcement conducted raids in areas thought to be populated by dangerous and “anti-American” radicals.

tree ringsPedro M. Cruz, John Wihbey, Avni Ghael, and Felipe Shibuya, "Simulated Dendrochronology of U.S. Immigration, 1790–2016," 2019. Courtesy of the artists.

In addition to archival material, the exhibition includes projects by contemporary artists and thinkers who are interested in both aesthetics and interpretation. Data innovators Pedro M. Cruz, John Wihbey, Avni Ghael, and Felipe Shibuya enliven statistics with Simulated Dendrochronology of U.S. Immigration, 1790–2016, a series of unusually poetic infographics using tree rings as a visual metaphor for the history of immigration—each new arrival building on the structure of previous migrations to America.  Further, Giorgia Lupi, a data visualization specialist and partner in the New York design firm Pentagram, has designed a customized interactive experience especially for MCNY in which museum visitors answer a series of questions that are transposed into a visual census of all museumgoers combined.

Ultimately Who We Are is intended to raise awareness of how important a full census count is for New Yorkers.  “How can you decide where you need more housing or transportation without the facts?  The numbers enable the city to plan for the future,” Henry says.  “This is a foundational act of civic engagement.  You can’t count if you’re not counted.”