American Art Museum's Old Schoolhouse Rocks

Chaim Shotkin, 9, of Ottawa, got to be dunce for a day during the interactive Smithsonian program.
Chaim Shotkin, 9, of Ottawa, got to be dunce for a day during the interactive Smithsonian program. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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By Adriane Quinlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006

On a recent weekday, dozens of children sit up straight as boards, on hard wooden benches, as a schoolmarm hits her open palm with a hickory stick.

In the 19th century, "if you got a rapping at school, your parents found out and you got a whupping at home," she says, her voice as sharp as her boot heels.

Jaws drop. Backs stiffen.

In the 19th century, schoolmarm Stephanie Runckles continues, "discipline was not a problem."

It's not a problem here, either, where children flock to learn, listen and endure long-abandoned disciplinary actions with the pride of teacher's pets. Titled "School's In/School's Out," this one-room schoolhouse re-creation -- held for one hour every summer Thursday in conjunction with the exhibit "American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America" -- has been the Smithsonian American Art Museum's surprise hit of the season. (The last classroom session is today at 1 p.m.; the exhibit ends Sept. 17.)

"I just thought people would go . . . 'Oh, how quaint,' " says the exhibit's curator, Claire Perry, who conceived of the schoolhouse and first showed it in the spring at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center. "I scratched my head and thought, 'What impulse is it that's drawing people to this?' "

The schoolhouse is unusual, American Art Museum Director Elizabeth Broun says, because it is offered "when kids are free from the bondage of going to school, so they're free to visit."

Attending class on a typical Thursday are 7-year-old history buffs who ask questions about Laura Ingalls Wilder, 6-year-olds who own American Girl dolls modeled after historical girls, and 5-year-olds who are simply fascinated by the odd lady in the poufy dress who waves a commanding stick like a stern Pied Piper.

For all its success, the schoolhouse wasn't what the curators had planned. The initial idea was to create an interactive exhibit that would have computers and kiosks -- the usual bells, whistles and drop-down menus often used to appeal to 21st-century students.

However, "there's something cold about computer screens," Perry says.

So, Broun says, "we stepped back and thought: 'What are we thinking? We're in the 19th century -- let's keep it to their methods.' "

They gave up on 21st-century pizazz. It was time to go old school. Literally.


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