Walls and Fences: Perspectives from Universities and Museums

By Williams, Ed; Johnson, Anna | Journal of the Southwest, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Walls and Fences: Perspectives from Universities and Museums


Williams, Ed, Johnson, Anna, Journal of the Southwest


Walls and fences and other barriers are always and everywhere. They were then, and they are now. They are there, and they are here. And barriers come in almost infinite varieties, including age-old socio-psychological modes and newfound virtual ones.

This special edition of Journal of the Southwest describes and analyzes from differing disciplinary perspectives the realities and meanings of walls, fences, and barriers of all varieties. Most of the contributions center on barriers on the U.S.--Mexican boundary line or those that blight the borderlands more generally conceived. A couple of the essays focus more broadly on fences, walls, and other barriers in American history and culture. Both boundary-focused and more broadly conceived essays touch on issues like security, civility, exclusionary values, property rights, privacy, environmentalism, and aesthetic qualities of barriers. Fences and walls often reflect and symbolize all of those prejudices, perplexities, and conundrums of the human condition and their public policy implications.

The collection of essays features contributions from both university-based teachers/scholars and museum and humanities council-based curators/educators. The initiative evolved from the senior editor's long tenure as a teacher/scholar at the University of Arizona and his more recent experience with Arizona museums. Ed Williams served first as a volunteer in the medium-sized Sharlot Hall Museum, a historical museum in Prescott, Arizona. Following that initiation to museum education, he signed on as a project scholar with the Arizona Humanities Council (AHC). During his tenure there, AHC worked with the Smithsonian Institution and the Federation of State Humanities Councils to facilitate an exhibition entitled Between Fences. In 2007-2008, the exhibition toured six small Arizona museums and arts organizations.

In the process, two influences melded to contribute to the conceptualization and maturation of this volume. The first evolved from Williams's newly found exposure to and experience with the educational mission and teaching activities of museums and arts and humanities councils and similar organizations. All pursue educational missions and propagate educational programs. The experience contributed to a better understanding of the didactic significance and social mission of museums. The second influence was more deeply rooted. It arose from Williams's long career at the University of Arizona dedicated to teaching, researching, and writing on Mexican government and politics and Mexican-U.S. relations, especially focusing upon the binational borderlands.

This introduction explores both of those themes. It sets out context and background to the understanding of barriers like fences and walls, especially the boundary-line fence. The introduction also explores the role of museums and museum education as vehicles for describing and analyzing walls and fences, as part of their general educational mission. The following section of this introduction offers a sense of the present mania demanding boundary-line barriers and touches on the Smithsonian's Between Fences exhibition. It also lists and discusses the cast of institutions and scholars involved in creating and bringing it to six small Arizona museums. The introduction then turns to an exposition of the role of museums and museum educators. The final part describes the contributors and the subsequent papers in the collection.

The borderlands and boundary-line security had catapulted to the first magnitude of concern in U.S. national affairs and Mexican-U.S. bilateral relations by 2005, about the same time that the AHC began its plans to sponsor the Smithsonian Between Fences exhibition. Drug trafficking and immigration from Mexico and beyond had gnawed at U.S. policymakers for fifty years or more. But the attack on America of September 11, 2001, added a dramatic new dimension to the need to secure the integrity of the northern and southern boundary lines. …

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