Smithsonian Exhibition Explores the Role of Fences in America

Traveling to Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky and South Dakota
August 22, 2008
News Release

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Fences are icons of the American landscape. They can be used to create a welcoming picture of home or a wall of privacy and security. Fences have pitted rancher against rancher in the battle for scarce resources; back fences serve as meeting places where neighbors share recipes, local gossip or a friendly joke. Americans live between fences.

“Between Fences,” an exhibition from Museum on Main Street, a partnership of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Federation of State Humanities Councils, examines the history and meaning of fences in America. Included in the exhibition are tools, photographs, journals, postcards and posters relating to the history of fences. Fences are an integral part of the fabric of the communities in the United States; so too is their rich history.

In September and October, five copies of the exhibition will begin touring rural museums in Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky and South Dakota. Working in conjunction with their state humanities councils, the host museums will develop public programs and local exhibitions to supplement the Smithsonian exhibit. The exhibition will tour additional states in 2009.

Fences are as complex as they are simple. Consider some of the more popular types—a rusted barbed-wire fence; a new, perfectly aligned white-picket fence; or a tall chain-link fence—each potentially conveys a message about the owners of the fence, their lives, and the nature of their relations with their neighbors.

“Between Fences” focuses on a range of fence materials and how they have varied over time and by region. Colonial America’s first fences were made of wood or stone. But as settlement moved westward, forests dwindled. Farmers who needed to protect their crops from free-ranging cattle came to rely on the steel-wire industry to create strong, inexpensive fence material. Using fences to establish boundaries led to the fence wars of the late 19th century. These conflicts turned neighbor against neighbor, sometimes with deadly consequences. More than two centuries later, the question is posed: What is the intent of fences?

“Between Fences” encourages visitors to embrace the importance of a crucial aspect of our personal and national heritage. As visitors explore the exhibition, encountering fences and gateways, they will get a sense of the unspoken communication and interaction that fences play in our lives. Do fences contain or exclude? When does a privacy fence become a spite fence? Do gated communities give the residents a special bond or exclude outsiders? Further, visitors will be asked to consider how and why we build fences, and how they reflect who we are as individuals, communities and a nation.

Just looking at the diversity of fences speaks to the American culture. The worm fence, one of the most widely built, garnered the attention of many 18th- and 19th-century visitors to the United States. Its unique design facilitated international understanding of the American culture.

The exhibition is part of Museum on Main Street, which serves museums, libraries and historical societies in rural America. The SITES-Federation of State Humanities Councils partnership, which began in 1994, was formed as a creative response to the challenge faced by rural museums to enhance their own cultural legacies. Major funding for Museum on Main Street is provided by the U.S. Congress.

Communities that have already participated in Museum on Main Street have found it has raised public awareness and support for the facilities that are so often the cultural backbone of small towns. The exhibitions have greatly increased community involvement, leaving lasting legacies in the museums that host them. Writing about a Museum on Main Street exhibit, Teresa M. Goforth of the Courthouse Square Association in Charlotte, Mich., said, “I must say this is by far one of the best programs we have offered to our community. Our visitation increased approximately 400 percent. Museum on Main Street is a godsend to small museums such as ours.” For more information, visit

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 50 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play. For more information, including exhibition descriptions and tour schedules, visit

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For additional information about the tour in individual states, contact the following representatives:

JulieAnne Cross
Delaware Humanities Forum
(302) 657-0650

Jennifer Armstrong
Idaho Humanities Council
(208) 345-5346

Ryan Lewis
Illinois Humanities Council
(312) 422-5585, x231

Kathleen Pool
Kentucky Humanities Council
(859) 257-5932

Michelle Pollard Madsen
South Dakota Humanities Council
(605) 688-6113