Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service


Archived exhibitions are no longer available for booking but are maintained as a virtual record of past Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) programs.


The Prairie Schoolhouse

While many families went broke attempting to farm the semi-arid terrain, many homesteaders flourished well into the 1930s, until the Great Depression and the "dust bowl" droughts combined to ruin farms across the West. Though human and natural forces have since erased most evidence of pioneer life on the prairie, traces can still be found in the scattered architectural remains that dot the countryside from North Dakota to New Mexico.

The Prairie Schoolhouse was a photographic essay on one of the most enduring emblems of homestead life. Through images of one-room schools set against vast landscapes, and photographs of architectural details and furnishings, the exhibition provides a glimpse into the lives of the children who grew up on the prairies. Most of these children attended the same one-room schoolhouse from the first to the eighth grade, studying a standard curriculum of arithmetic, composition, geography, grammar, penmanship, physiology, reading, spelling, and United States history. The exhibition also explored the varied architectural traditions of the northern and southern prairies.

John Martin Campbell, a research professor in anthropology at the University of New Mexico, grew up in the sagebrush country of eastern Washington State and attended a schoolhouse in the tiny town of Selah. In this exhibition he combined personal and professional interests to tell a compelling story about this little-studied chapter in United States history. Campbell photographed more than 60 schoolhouses across 14 western states using a 4 x 5 view camera. Forty of his finest black-and-white images are included in the exhibition. The Prairie Schoolhouse was originally presented at the Maxwell Museum at the University of New Mexico. A companion book to the exhibition was published by the University of New Mexico Press in February 1996.

This Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service exhibition toured from 1996-2000.



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