The Year of the Pig

The argument lurking behind the touring “The 1968 Exhibit” at Bowers Museum is that the titular year was the most divisive in U.S. history. Just a partial listing of relevant events would support this thesis: the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the rising body count that followed; the Memphis sanitation strike, decrying the unsafe working conditions that crushed two workers in a garbage packer; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy within a few months of each other; Apollo 8, the first manned space flight to orbit the moon; the Resurrection City shantytown and its thousands of people protesting poverty on the National Mall; the Columbia University takedown by students; Chicago police smacking heads during the riot at the Democratic Convention; feminists challenging the bubble-headed representation of women in the Miss America Pageant . . . and that's just a few of what seemed like almost daily milestones and tragedies.

The exhibit is imaginatively laid out, beginning and ending with models of suburban living rooms, packed with period furniture and the stray Bell Huey helicopter or silver space capsule resting comfortably next to the sofa, as the voice of news anchor Walter Cronkite talks smoothly about the war on television. Broken down month to month, wall-sized images of famous incidents (such as Boris Yaro's photo of a bleeding Kennedy being cradled by a teenage busboy in the hotel kitchen where he was shot) and reproductions of posters (three demurely dressed young women on a couch, with the words “GIRLS SAY YES to boys who say NO” above their heads, another of the bloodied face of a Columbia student throwing a peace sign) separating the rooms into sections, the show is easy on the eyes, accessible and sentimental where it needs to be, despite the often-difficult subject matter.

The artifacts are delightful and intriguing: There are tacky fashion statements (jackets with fringe, pants that have been patched so much they resemble quilts, short skirts and Twiggy eyelashes); utilitarian housewares (plastic plates and cups in primary colors, with the famous quote from The Graduate posted nearby); borderline kitsch (etched whiskey tumblers and vintage colored-glass goblets, the glass-ball grape clusters that sat atop many a mother's coffee table, plastic purses, psychedelic wallpaper, the color avocado everywhere); I-can't-believe-I'm-seeing-this-exhibited-at-the-Bowers items (roach clips and Zig-Zag rolling papers, part of the rear cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's album Two Virgins, film clips from George A. Romero's groundbreaking zombie apocalypse, Night of the Living Dead ); politics (buttons with Hubert Humphrey's face on them; shortened hand tools that created back injuries in migrant workers; a Black Panther beret, leather jacket and shotgun); the wildly sexist ads that made women look as if they took fashion tips from Hugh Hefner and Virginia Slims ads pushing cigarettes for the liberated woman (“You've come a long way, baby!”). One room with bean bag chairs and several TV screens plays theme songs and clips from beloved series such as Bewitched, The Monkees, Mission: Impossible, Dragnet and Star Trek, among others. A riveting series of movie clips demands you stop and watch as you walk by: There's a wholly apolitical Jane Fonda in Barbarella, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the revolutionary British film . . . if, Mel Brooks' original The Producers and Mia Farrow screaming about her infant son in the finale of Rosemary's Baby.

Despite all that, it's a lightweight exhibition intellectually. Historically accurate and informative, yet not very insightful, the exhibition plays to the widest possible audience by not coming down on one side or another of its central, unasked question: Was this a particularly nihilistic year filled with violence and trauma that added nothing to the country's legacy, or was it painful because the country was growing and moving into a new, more progressive and equitable future? One with a liberal bent could walk through the show, nod over pictures of King and Kennedy, Joan Baez and Abbie Hoffman, and look at how those steps led to the country we have now, but I could also see a conservative walk through and shake his or her head at the various radical movements and walk out at the end, gratified that balance was returned with the Nixon presidency.

With the Sturm und Drang of the time period swiftly becoming a faded memory for those of us old enough to have been born around that time—and not even that for most of the readers of this paper—why should anyone even bother going to something so aimed at triggering nostalgia in baby boomers? I could throw around aphorisms about remembering the past or repeating the future, blah-blah-blah, but I think the show could accidentally be offering a form of inspiration: While older folks can visit and be wistful, the tidbits about the success and failure of AIM, the Brown Berets, the Yippies or Black Panthers could also unleash a tidal wave of Google searches for those a little less . . . old.

MLK wasn't the only one with a dream.

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