Back to the future with 1968 exhibit at Minnesota History Center

The 1968 exhibit opened October 14, to a cheerful crowd, many of whom remembered the year in different ways. At the button-making station in the lobby, a couple ordered up competing Gene McCarthy and Richard Nixon for president buttons before heading on to the rest of the exhibit. Cheerful young people, (over)dressed in “hippie” paraphernalia, guided visitors, some of who were older people wearing their own resurrected finery.  Upstairs, enjoying chili in the members’ lounge, one man held forth on how “we need to go back to the 1950s when there was real freedom and the government couldn’t tell anybody what to do, couldn’t force people to get medical treatment for a kid with cancer. That’s a violation of freedom.” Shades of the Tea Party … or was it the John Birch Society?

In short, the 1968 exhibit offered a view of a community every bit as diverse and divided as we were in 1968, the year the exhibit website says is a “turning point for a generation coming of age and a nation at war.” Especially for those of us who lived through 1968, the exhibit provoked reflection on whether and how the country has changed since then. (Full disclosure: I was in Chicago in 1968, and have my own stories of the King assassination and riots, Operation Breadbasket, and the Democratic National Convention.)

The MHS 1968 exhibit offers a crazy panoply of sights and sounds, from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have been to the mountaintop” speech, a Huey helicopter, and photos of starving children in Biafra to Easy-Bake ovens, Virginia Slims and sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

The juxtaposition of cultural icons is epitomized in the discussion by curator Brian Horrigan and exhibit designer Earl Gutnik. Gutnik talked about the designer colors of the year, which were harvest gold and avocado, and offered his speculation that harvest gold reflected the color of ripening rice paddies while avocado was similar to the uniforms of soldiers. The connection between the colors of middle-class America’s stoves and refrigerators and the war raging across an ocean and, via television, in the same middle class living rooms each night, seemed to me particularly surreal.

The online exhibit display has lots of opportunities for interaction, including the exhibit blog and a section for “reflections” from visitors. Read what others have written, write your own.

Other parts of the exhibit sparked other connections for me. The photos from Resurrection City, the Poor People’s Campaign encampment in Washington DC in May were accompanied by a reminder that this was like the Hoovervilles of the 1930s, also built in protest. Speaking at Resurrection City, Reverend Ralph Abernathy said, “We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity.”

Meanwhile, across the river, Occupy Minnesota camped out in front of the Hennepin County Government Center and across the continent, Occupy Wall Street was joined by Occupy groups in scores of other cities, all with messages very similar to those of Resurrection City and the Hoovervilles.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s last speech in Memphis is shown in the part of the exhibit recounting his assassination on April 4, 1968. “I have been to the mountaintop” still brings tears to my eyes, but the more relevant message may be his promise that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The part of the exhibit devoted to the Democratic National Convention looks cleaner and safer than my memory, which includes tanks in the streets of Chicago, tear gas, medics, and police attacks on demonstrators outside and McCarthy volunteers inside the Hilton Hotel.

Hippies, beads and rock and roll were big parts of the exhibit, and even Eugene McCarthy’s peace campaign turned into a fashion statement with a dress covered with campaign button images. The exhibit crams an amazing amount of information and imagery into its 5,000 square feet, and if I have not mentioned your memories from 1968 (Bobby Kennedy? LSD? AIM? Cesar Chavez? Janis Joplin?), that’s just because I can’t do justice to the breadth and depth of the exhibit in a single column.

My favorite quotation from the exhibit comes from a then-17-year-old McCarthy volunteer, who said, “For a few months in early 1968, change seemed possible.”

I hope it still is.

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