Schoolhouse Attic

By Steven Drummond — March 01, 1999 7 min read

Items like textbooks, homework, or classroom desks haven’t traditionally been items people would think of keeping, and they often end up in the trash. “This is perishable history in many ways,” Shayt adds.

To get there, you go past the big steam engine. Past the 17-ton hunk of cable from the George Washington Bridge. Past the top-fuel dragster and the Electrolux vacuum cleaner and a wandering group of schoolchildren from Harrington, Delaware.

David Shayt leads the way: into the elevator and up to the fourth floor, down a long, anonymous hall and through an anonymous door, far away from the tourist hordes below. Here, in a climate-controlled environment designed especially for their comfort and safety, reside bits and pieces of America’s educational past. They form a small part of the millions of objects collected, stored, preserved, displayed, and wondered at here in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

A small wooden box that stored pencils and supplies. A wood-and-wire device that holds five pieces of chalk, used to make parallel lines on a blackboard. Crayons in their yellow Crayola boxes. Report cards and homework from a girl who grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the 1930s and 1940s. And, packed away for now, an entire classroom from a Cleveland elementary school. The whole thing: blackboards, radiators, paneling, doors. Room 201 is all that remains of a building where once thousands of children-- many of them immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants--learned to read, write, count, and, perhaps most of all, be Americans.

Though such artifacts lack the drawing power of some of the museum’s other national treasures, like the battle-torn flag that inspired the Star-Spangled Banner and the inaugural gowns of the First Ladies, they can tell stories just as moving.

Shayt, a meticulous, soft-spoken ex-Marine from Boise, Idaho, is one of the zookeepers in this silent menagerie. “The single most important thing we do,” he says, “is preserve the object as best we can.” A happy artifact, he explains, is one that’s kept in a dark, stable environment: roughly 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with relative humidity about 55 percent. “Excessive light exposure, excessive handling, excessive change in temperature and humidity contribute to that object’s degradation,” he says. “We try to slow that degradation down.”

Schools are part of the museum’s cultural-history collections. The specially designed steel cabinets housing the nation’s educational past stand next to the ones housing its sports-helmet past and its ice- and roller-skating past. Scattered around the room, in preparation for an upcoming exhibit, are artifacts from the nation’s comic book-superhero past: Superman dolls, Superman books, Superman toys, Superman everything. “We are rotating things constantly on and off exhibition,” says Shayt, a member of the curatorial staff since 1977.

It’s impossible for everything to be on view in a museum that houses millions of artifacts. Most of them, Shayt says, are small objects such as stamps and coins. Museums, for obvious reasons, discriminate against size. “We’ve got thousands of thimbles, but only about a dozen locomotives.”

To archaeologists, chunks of wood and bits of stone from an ancient bridge or aqueduct can reveal much about the civilization that built it. In a similar fashion, historians use the artifacts here to learn about an equally impressive edifice--a system of universal public education--and of the people who undertook to build it over some two centuries.

But within that story are many stories, and deciding which of those to focus on is a challenge, says Ellen Roney Hughes, a historian in the museum’s division of cultural history. “Because it’s such a long history and a wide history,” she says, “you have to decide what do you want to take, what eras, what locations.”

That isn’t always easy. “The things of education, the materials of education, are either paper and ephemeral, or they’re very large, like buildings,” Hughes points out. “Both of those present problems to museums.”

The story of children has been historically neglected, but the curators are trying to improve the collections in that area.

Items like textbooks, homework, or classroom desks haven’t traditionally been items people would think of keeping, and they often end up in the trash. “This is perishable history in many ways,” Shayt adds.

A simple, wood-framed slate seems an unlikely object to store away for posterity. Yet looking at one--the museum has several--evokes powerful images of schooling in a different time. A time of wood stoves and one-room schools and McGuffey Readers. Of dreary repetition and stern teachers and harsh punishment.

The museum has two classrooms. The one from Cleveland’s Dunham School, built in the 1880s, was donated by the city school board in 1975. An older example, from a one-room school in Mason Island, Connecticut, was on display for several years after the museum opened in 1964. Each tells a different story, fills in a different part of the American puzzle. From 1976 to 1991, the room from Cleveland was part of an exhibit called “Shared Experience,” which explored the common features of life that combined to make Americans out of millions of people who came from vastly different lands and cultures. It was assembled in the museum and fitted out with desks and all the trappings of a World War I-era city school. When complete, it captured a particular time and place in a way that no books or picture could, Hughes says. “It was one of those very evocative exhibitions that prompted all kinds of memories from people all over the country who had gone to a school like that.”

Many of the issues illustrated in that exhibit are still relevant today. The school systems of 80 years ago were very focused on Americanization, Hughes explains. “And some people feel that what was lost is the cultural heritage of the individual, that the programs weren’t without cost to individuals and families.”

The debates today over bilingual education, spurred by waves of immigration that are helping raise enrollment to record levels each year, echo those essential questions over the role and purpose of public schooling.

That, of course, is only one of many stories that school-related artifacts can tell. Shayt, for one, be- lieves the story of children is largely untold. “Kids have been historically neglected” in efforts to tell the nation’s history, says Shayt, 46, who holds a master’s degree in history from nearby George Washington University.

Many of the education items--textbooks, teaching tools, chalk--were designed, constructed, and used by adults. An exception, Shayt notes, is homework. “Homework is the feedback in education, from the children’s point of view,” he says. “It completes the circle.” Yet collections of student work are slim. Wearing white cotton gloves to protect the objects, Shayt pulls from the enameled steel cabinets some of the museum’s few examples, the personal school papers of a volunteer at the museum who donated them a few years ago. Shayt leafs through the pages of report cards and science reports, then places them carefully back in their drawer.

Neatly folded on a countertop behind him is a sleeveless blue-jean jacket covered with embroidered patches and insignia. It once belonged to a member of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club who is now deceased. Like many items that arrive at the museum, it was sent in by an anonymous donor. Though the jacket has historical value and could wind up on exhibit someday, Shayt and his colleagues on the curatorial staff discourage such contributions. Caring for the museum’s millions of items is already a massive effort, and space is tight. “We prefer a letter with a photograph,” Shayt says.

In building the collections, the curators seek diversity not only across time but in geography, as well. The museum’s collections are strongest in items from the East and weaker in those from the Midwest and West. And though the Smithsonian has no current exhibit specifically devoted to education, there are a few things Shayt would like to acquire to round out the collections. “A genuine school bell,” he says, one that hung in a school and was used to summon children to class. And pausing for a moment, he smiles as he thinks of one other thing. “A dunce cap,” he says. “We would like a dunce cap.”