By Rich Lynch: It doesn’t really seem so long to me, but it’s been more than one-third of a century that Nicki and I have lived here in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. And in that time we’ve had many out-of-town visitors who, before they continue on into the nation’s capital to take in what they can of the Smithsonian Institution, often asked an obvious yet oversimplified question: Which one is the best museum to visit?
There are a lot of options! The Smithsonian is the largest complex of museums in the world, seven of which are located in downtown Washington along the National Mall. You can’t see them all in a single day, or even in a single week. But for those who have just one afternoon reserved for their Smithsonian experience and don’t already have a plan, my advice is to go to the one that’s the most eclectic: the National Museum of American History.
It’s been in existence for nearly 60 years, first opening in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology. It’s the largest museum of the Smithsonian in terms of overall size and has under its purview millions of historical artifacts which have social, political, cultural, scientific, and military significance (even though only a small fraction of them are on display). The museum is big enough that there’s plenty of room for large alcoves that can be used for special interest exhibits. So, on the Winter solstice, Nicki and I took our own advice and traveled down to D.C. to take in the special interest exhibit that was, well, of very special interest to us: Entertainment Nation.
The museum’s website has a pretty good description, so I’ll just go with that: “…a powerful, ever-changing selection of objects and interactive experiences. Through the objects and their stories, the exhibition will explore how, for over 150 years, entertainment has provided a forum for important national conversations about who we are, and who we want to be.” It’s big! The gallery housing it is 7,200 square feet in area, the equivalent amount of living space in a mini-mansion. That’s easily enough room for the museum to showcase the hundreds of objects that it selected to help describe the cultural impact of various different forms of entertainment: music, theater, television, film, and sports. And as part of that narrative, the exhibition featured a varied and broad spectrum of popular culture, including things like the living room set from the TV show All in the Family, Prince’s yellow cloud electric guitar, the iconic stopwatch from the TV news show 60 Minutes, the baseball jersey worn by Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente, the costume worn by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Broadway musical Hamilton, and the signpost from the TV show M*A*S*H which showed distances to places in other parts of the world outside war-torn Korea. And there were also objects, costumes, and other artifacts from the science fiction and fantasy genres. Many, many of them.
There were way more than I had expected to see – probably 25% of the entire exhibition. From the layout, the focal point was no doubt intended to be the pair of ruby slippers from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, but what instead immediately attracted my attention was the Star Wars display. There was a screen which was showing brief snippets from some of the movies but as you’d expect, the centerpiece was R2‑D2 and C‑3PO. There were there in full glory, or whatever the equivalent of that is it in the Star Wars universe. I’d never seen them so up close before so I hadn’t fully appreciated the tremendous amount of skill of the creators of those intricate costumes. But after seeing how confining it must have been for the actors who were inside those constructs, Nicki made a perceptive observation: “It must be hot inside them.” All the more to admire about the acting chops of Anthony Daniels and the late Kenny Baker.
The science fictional and fantastic aspects of Entertainment Nation turned out to be as diverse as the rest of the exhibition. There was a lot to see. A children’s television display included several of the Muppets and the original Howdy Doody marionette. Along the far wall there was a ‘Women in Sci-Fi and Fantasy’ display showcasing costumes worn by Lucy Lawless in Xena and Michelle Yeoh & Sonequa Martin-Green in Star Trek: Discovery as well as the fearsome katana sword wielded by Danai Gurira’s Michone character in The Walking Dead, the headband and gloves worn by Julie Newmar’s Catwoman character from the 1960s Batman TV series, and even the ID badge of Gillian Anderson’s Scully in The X-Files. And in displays farther around the gallery the DC and Marvel universes were admirably represented by the original Superman costume worn by George Reeves in the 1950s and the red-white-and-blue shield that helped to protect Chris Evans’s Captain America character.
There were even more besides these – many more – but it eventually got to a point where it became almost too much of a good thing. Not to the point where eyes start to glaze over but well beyond where I started to lose track of the overall narrative about the power of entertainment as a force for change. From personal experience, I know that a docent tour is the best way to take in an exhibition with so many individual and seemingly disparate components like this one has. They probably do happen, but it might be that it needs to be scheduled in advance.
At any rate, there’s good news that Entertainment Nation is intended to be a permanent exhibition, and will have some of its items on display changed out about every six months. Guess we’ll have to come back this summer!