The moment you step into the Minnesota History Center’s new exhibit, 1968 , you will be transported back to that storied year via the sonorous voice of Walter Kronkite, reporting from the front lines of the Vietnam War. He appears on the Zenith console TV in the corner of a room decorated to the exact specifications of the late-1960s middle class—snot-green couch, Formica coffee table, glass ashtray, a set of World Book encyclopedias on the bookshelf—and he is suggesting, in the gravest tone possible, that we—the greatest country on earth—may not be winning the war after all.
A full-size army helicopter sits next to the TV console, as if it’s been thrust into the living room—which of course it has, via “the first televised war” in American history. Inside the chopper, video of wounded soldiers plays while nurses explain that the hardest part of their job is knowing the guys they patch up are headed back into the meat-grinder. On display in a nearby case are a Kodak instamatic camera, a Zippo lighter, a portable radio, and other artifacts of the era. In another case sits a Smith-Corona typewriter, a set of day-glo dishware, and some amber juice goblets—the kind gas stations used to give away free with a fill-up.
If you’ve read a tree-based newspaper anytime in the last few days, you know that 1968 is the most heavily promoted History Center exhibit to come along since The Greatest Generation , another nostalgia-fest that featured, among other things, a soda fountain whose tranquility is shattered by the televised explosion of a nuclear bomb. 1968 uses the same strategy of contrasting the cozy world inside with the dangerous and unpredictable world outside. In one corner you can watch segments of such beloved TV shows as Star Trek, Mission Impossible, Dragnet ; in another, you can see Dan Rather getting pushed around by “thugs” at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At another station you can play a 1968 music quiz (tip: bone up on your Herb Albert trivia), and at another, you can see life-size video of Martin Luther King declaring, “We as a people will get to the Promised Land!,” one day before he was killed.
There isn’t much that you haven’t seen or heard before, and that’s both a plus and minus for this show. The History Center plans to send this exhibit traveling to other museums around the country, so there isn’t much in the way of local lore except for a few Hubert Humphrey buttons and other campaign paraphernalia. The rest of the show consists of the more-or-less obvious detritus of our collective 1968 consciousness, which of course includes the album covers of such musical stalwarts as Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles. My favorite part was the loving display of two Star Trek phaser guns, the kind that shot those little plastic discs my mother was finding between the couch cushions well into the 1980s.
There are plenty of bean-bag chairs to sit in, and it’s a lot of fun to travel down memory lane (if you have memories from the sixties, that is), or just marvel at the things people had to put up with back then, like the awful TV resolution. How did they do it? All I know is that my dad used to crimp pieces of tin foil to the rabbit ears and play with them until most of the snow went away. (If you know what that last sentence means, this exhibit was made for you.)
If you actually lived through the 1960s, this exhibit isn’t going to show or teach you anything you didn’t already know. The only new piece of information I came away with was that Martin Luther King was shot not while speaking, but while he was trying to decide whether to wear an overcoat for his speech or not. I’d forgotten, too, that the Rev. Jesse Jackson was standing right beside him on that fateful day—a factoid that helps explain Jackson’s rabid activism for the next three decades.
Still, it’s a pleasant enough excursion down memory lane. 1968 is one of the most documented years in American history, and they’ve managed to cram most of the year’s highlights into a much more modest space than the Greatest Generation exhibit. It ends, appropriately enough, with television footage from the Apollo 8 moon mission—with Walter Kronkite once again delivering the stirring narrative of history in the making. The sound of triumph and pride in Kronkite’s voice as the rocket lifts into space is remarkable, if only because it marks a time in our history when miraculous things still seemed possible. Seen through the lens of today, when so much seems impossible and insurmountable, it’s an uncomfortable reminder of how much—and how little—has changed. We’re still not winning any wars, and going to the moon has gotten boring—but hey, our TV picture is clearer than ever.
Too bad our vision for the country hasn’t.
1968 will be at the Minnesota History center through Feb. 20, 2012.