Spotlight Exclusives

New Exhibit Tackles the Eviction Crisis

Sarah Leavitt, National Building Museum Sarah Leavitt, National Building Museum, posted on

Matthew Desmond’s 2016 book Evicted generated new attention to the ways in which the loss of home perpetuates poverty. Now, the National Building Museum in Washington, DC is working with Desmond to showcase the causes and impact of eviction through a new exhibit. Spotlight recently spoke with the exhibit’s curator, Sarah Leavitt, to discuss the exhibit (on display now through May 2019) and the issue of eviction more broadly. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you give us a little background on the exhibit?

I had read Matt Desmond’s book, and found it devastating. We have done exhibitions around the meaning of home and the architecture of home, we had never explored the loss of home and its implications. I was interested in seeing what would happen if we did an exhibition based on his book.

I contacted him and he got excited about broadening the story for a wider audience. One of his goals is to show more people about the eviction crisis and this provided a new medium for doing this.

Reading Desmond’s book, you get the sense of how traumatic an eviction can be. How did you set about capturing that experience?

We were really intent on trying to have visitors come out with a deeper understanding of eviction, to create some empathy around this issue, and to have people have a visceral reaction to what they were seeing. We included a lot of data, but we paired this with photography and audio of people facing eviction to help supplement the statistics.

The exhibition is also meant to make people somewhat uncomfortable. The colors are stark and we presented difficult visuals like a house turned out with belongings outside.

You mentioned statistics and data around this issue. Can you talk about the scope and scale of eviction in the US and some of its consequences?

One of the things we’re trying to do with this exhibit is highlight the new data out of the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. This is a project founded by Desmond to collect national data around the prevalence of evictions. They found that about 2.3 million people are affected by eviction every year in America. That’s a really staggering number. In the exhibit, we present that data state-by-state on a map, and we make it 3-dimensonal so that visitors are directly confronted by this visual as they come into the exhibition.

We also have statistics from nearly every county in America showing that it’s nearly impossible to afford an apartment if you’re working at minimum wage. We wanted to provide some context for the problem beyond just evictions themselves.

What do you want visitors to take away from the exhibit?

I think it’s severalfold. We’re trying to impress upon visitors the scope of this crisis. We’re showing them that it’s an ongoing issue in every town in the United States.

We want to encourage empathy and inspire people to help make change—whether that’s getting involved in some of the organizations that are working on these issues, talking to elected officials, or helping push through legislation at the state and local levels.

We don’t just want people to be upset—we want them to understand that it’s not an inevitable story, and that people can catalyze change.

Who’s been coming to see the exhibit thus far?

It’s been very diverse. We have a lot of tourists who are just stopping through. We’ve also welcomed a lot of folks working on housing issues—particularly those based in DC. This includes people involved at the DC local level, people on the Hill, and staff members from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

We also had a busload of people from the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition come down. These are low-income tenant advocates themselves, and they wanted to come down and see how we were presenting the issue.

Finally, we had some local soup kitchens visit, which is an audience we don’t usually get. A lot of these individuals were getting to see stories like their own presented through the exhibit.

Was there a conscious effort to bring all these different stakeholders here?

I did reach out to people, but we’re finding that many people are coming in on their own as well.

One of my goals is for this exhibition to be a place for conversations and a forum and springboard for work and activism. I feel like we’re seeing that impact which is satisfying.

It’s exciting to see you elevating an issue like eviction through a different medium and showcasing it for new audiences.

I really hope that people are starting to see museums as a place where these conversations can happen.  I’m excited about the potential of finding new means of expanding awareness of issues like eviction and then working constructively together around solutions.

Sarah Leavitt is a curator at the National Building Museum.

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