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“Between Fences”

What’s in a fence? It’s a question for engineers and economists, sociologists and semioticians. To European settlers, America’s absence of fenced-in land was evidence of its divine, utopian innocence. Since then, the entire history of that promised land—exploration and conquest, slavery and emancipation, urban growth and industrial expansion, western drift and suburban sprawl, individual rights and family values—has been viewed over, through, or around fences. America may be about open space and free movement, but Americans, their myths to the contrary notwithstanding, were born surrounded by fences.

A sprawling new exhibit at the National Building Museum makes a good start toward helping us understand this. “Between Fences” presents straightforward if somewhat bland surveys of the history, economics, and science involved in American fencing, smoothly blended with provocative explorations of the meanings conveyed by just how we fence our land, our homes, and ourselves. Through a dramatically designed combination of installed fencing and more conventional illustrations, the exhibit manages to evoke fenced environments ranging from placid suburban back yards to chaotic colonial barnyards to the tense Mexican border. All the while, thanks to a design that never quite settles the question of whether fences frame America or vice versa, “Between Fences” keeps visitors thinking about the fundamental paradox it illuminates: The land of the free is uniquely enclosed.

Between 1801 and 1881, as it grew from small coastal republic to mighty continental empire, the United States granted over 1,200 patents for fences. In the next century, though the frenetic pace of patenting slowed, the fencing of America carried on in new and diverse ways. It’s no surprise that to many people fences seem almost as natural a part of the environment as trees. Appropriately then, “Between Fences” begins with a section titled “Homeland,” which sets out to show the various contexts in which the fence—simple or ornamented, gentle or threatening—has become naturalized.

Like all the sections of the exhibit, “Homeland” combines photographs, illustrations, and informative text with actual fenced environments in order to tell the story of a day in the life of the American fence. There is a New England–style stone fence, a house made of chain link, and a delicately fenced cemetery plot. Some of these worlds are obvious: home, yard, and farm. Others, however, are more interesting. Fences, the exhibit notes, denote property, which in early America was a requirement for civic rights and which in the language of the framers and many subsequent Americans was all but synonymous with the pursuit of happiness. The corporate fence, a creature of the early industrial era, was used to create an appealing domestic scale for factories as they gradually became the main focus of America’s production. In death, one amusing display shows, Americans fence their families together in garden cemeteries, as if to carry that highest sign of domesticity into the next world.

Further sections of the exhibit work through topics in the history of American fencing, from land conflicts to agriculture to technological change. With fences, white settlers claimed the land from Native Americans. Fences, and who was allowed to build them, are a major theme in agricultural history. The way these kinds of questions were settled—should crops be fenced in and kept from animals, as they were in the South, or vice versa?—said much about the country’s regional diversity.

At the heart of these admittedly obscure histories are tales central to the American experience. Glimpses of real life are neatly interspersed with examples of actual fencing. The section on homes features not only a house made entirely of chain link but walls decorated with vintage photographs of ordinary people and their fences. Examples of developments in livestock fencing also feature a wide variety of illustrations and advertisements, such as a ghastly 19th-century promotion that depicts a horse bloodied by barbed wire. Fences surround factory workers: The exhibit’s photographs are alternately comforting—like the one showing workers leaving a Rochester plant for the day—and ominous, such as the picture of guards wheeling shut a prisonlike gate. A gargantuan, noisy chain-link manufacturing machine lies at the center of the exhibit, surrounded by examples of just how lucrative the fencing industry has been.

But the most ambitious parts of “Between Fences” are also the most contemporary, and the most interpretive. Fences may have accompanied growth, wealth, change, and domesticity, but today they most often seem symbols of an increasingly frightened and divided society. Few people have fences in today’s middle-class suburbs; many more have them in poorer neighborhoods. These aspects of America are all evident in the exhibit’s historical portions, but they’re rawest when “Between Fences” takes on the neighbors and neighborhoods of today.

In “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” visitors are confronted with a stark white fence. Too high to see over, it instead allows us to imagine the neighbors on the other side. A soundtrack provides first friendly neighborhood chatter, then annoying children, then a barking dog. Meanwhile, through one of the small holes in the fence a video screen shows various placid images of what neighbors might be doing. Does this fence make good neighbors? “Between Fences” doesn’t really take sides. We do learn, though, that unnecessary “spite fences” of this sort have been banned. Others like it are aimed at discouraging trespassers. One of the exhibit’s many textual additions quotes an Iowa Supreme Court ruling defining merely sticking an arm across someone’s fence as an act of trespass.

The final two sections deal with hot-button issues of the day. “The Pursuit of Happiness” looks at gated communities, examining the ways Americans shut their neighborhoods off from others, the historical reasons they have done this, and reasons why the trend seems to be growing. A guardhouse and cagelike fencing abut photographs and text about the subject, creating a spooky feel that contrasts with at least some of the leisure-class pictures hung from the fencing.

“At the Border” reconstitutes the Mexican border wall. While video footage runs of a helicopter’s searchlight scanning the nighttime border, displays show the contrasting absence of fortifications from the Canadian border and even from unpopulated parts of the southern frontier. One particularly worthy panel contains the New York Times’ estimate of the massive cost that would accompany the sort of border fence Pat Buchanan has called for. Accompanying text also notes that calls for stronger border patrols peaked in the early 1930s, late 1940s, and now the 1990s, suggesting that attitudes toward the southern border have much to do with Americans’ conceptions about themselves and their economy. As if to underscore the point that our attitude toward the outside is intimately connected to our view of our internal stability, the entire border-wall installation lies under a giant model of a picket fence.

In the end, the subject gets turned on the museum’s visitors. “How do you build your fences?” reads the question at the exit. By this point, of course, it is clear that we do this in myriad ways. As for the morality or practicality of these ways, a broad—in many cases too broad—survey exhibit must be ambiguous. But even as “Between Fences” allows us to sit on the fence, it succeeds because it forces us to think about just what it is we’re sitting on.CP