Storytelling is an art form that requires continuous refinement, occasional improvisation, and meticulous editing until a final draft emerges, but the finished form tends to elide the process that led to it. At the National Building Museum (NBM)’s new exhibition, Building Stories, which is set to anchor the NBM’s ground floor for the next decade, the often-messy creation process is revealed and celebrated through proud display of maquettes, drafts, and sketches that become memorable stories. Ostensibly an exhibition of children’s books about architecture, Building Stories aims to be for “anyone who is naturally curious and who loves a good story—whether it’s told in words, pictures, or both,” as curator Leonard Marcus puts it.
“Scale Play” gallery. Photo by Elman Studio
“Wider World” gallery. Photo by Elman Studio
Entering through a series of cross-laminated timber arches, visitors immediately encounter stories in the form of an eight-channel audio installation of voices reading aloud excerpts from books within the exhibition. This immersion within the realm of storytelling continues spatially through four galleries, each with its own narrative theme, all related to design overtly or otherwise. The first gallery starts with metaphorical building blocks in the form of a wall of alphabet books from around the world, just inside the CLT portal; literal building blocks, including examples of Froebel and unit blocks, also line display cases within the gallery alongside rough models by Tatiana Bilbao, Jennifer Bonner, and Frank Gehry, among others.
“Building Readers” gallery. Photo by Elman Studio
Slipping through another set of arches—these three printed with black-and-white images of straw, sticks, and bricks, in a nod to "The Three Little Pigs”—visitors find a darkened gallery featuring a central, round mini-theater, where stills from three books are projected. This gallery, themed as “Your Home, My Home,” looks at all the variations of the idea of home, and provides a reading nook and a sketchbook gallery to expand visitors’ imaginations and put thoughts down on paper. The walls include buttons to press, knobs to turn, and drawers to pull.
“Your Home, My Home” (1) and “Building Readers” (2) galleries at Building Stories, now on view at the National Building Museum. Photos by Elman Studio
Exhibition designers Traci Sym and Daniel Meyers of Portland, Oregon–based studio + & > (Plus and Greater Than) say that they left no surface untouched. And truly, Building Stories is so full of material—150 books from more than two dozen countries spanning three centuries, plus toys, models, and drawings from the NBM’s collection—that visitors are sure to encounter something new on each visit, be it one of the many books on display or a hidden set of objects within a cabinet of curiosities–like nook, waiting to be discovered. “We wanted this maximalist visual field for kids to grow up in,” Sym explains. “At first maybe they see things that are familiar, and then there are these other layers that start to come into focus as they age and come back again.” Just by sheer volume of the presentation, it would be almost impossible to take in every element of the show in a single visit, which also allows the story to unfold in new ways upon returning.
On their way into the third gallery, visitors pass through another portal with forced perspective invoking a scalar shift. The theme of scale continues with miniatures and squishable models, a shrink ray, and, crucial for a Washington, D.C.–based museum located just 11 blocks away from the White House, a tactile model of the presidential residence and workplace that’s much more accessible than the real thing. “Curating is storytelling in three dimensions, and this show has so many of the attributes of what makes illustrated children's books, dramatic and engaging and almost performative,” Marcus says. “But I think it's almost like being in a book as you look at other books.” Within the illustrated walls of the exhibition, visitors almost feel as if they are jumping onto the page themselves.
“Building Readers” (3) and “Scale Play” (4) galleries at Building Stories. Photos by Elman Studio
For a look at how those proverbial pages come together, a side gallery offers an intimate telling, almost like a whispered aside, by illustrator and writer David Macaulay. Depicting his creative technique from start to finish for the book Rome Antics, Macaulay shows the cluttered disarray of initial thinking about the project on through sketches and into the final layouts of the printed pages, with handwritten labels describing the thought process behind specific choices.
One gallery in Building Stories is devoted to understanding David Macaulay's process for creating/building his own books using Rome Antics as an example. Macaulay is pictured here working in his gallery. Photo courtesy National Building Museum
In the final gallery, work by Northern Ireland–based artist and author Oliver Jeffers fills the room with plush, colorful, blocky shapes imprinted with words and drawings that visitors can stack, slide into like-shaped wall slots, or arrange, as Sym puts it, “like three-dimensional, spatialized magnet poetry.” This gallery also offers the third bookshelf and reading nook where visitors can pause before re-emerging into the NBM’s Great Hall in another scalar shift.
“Building Stories brings children's books to life through a series of linked and immersive landscapes, guided by the principles that the built world is exploratory, personal, surprising, inspiring, and transformative,” NBM executive director Aileen Fuchs said at the opening. “This exhibition is going to be an anchor for activation and a destination for early learning in our nation's capital … [and] will transform how we learn, how we build, and how we are inspired in Downtown D.C.”
Building Stories opened to the public on January 21, 2024. Ticketing and additional information can be found here.