HomeEntertainment ‘Star Wars’ Droids, Prince’s Guitar, Mr. Rogers‘ Sweater: Smithsonian’s New Pop Culture Wing Places Entertainment Artifacts At Center Of American Experience

‘Star Wars’ Droids, Prince’s Guitar, Mr. Rogers‘ Sweater: Smithsonian’s New Pop Culture Wing Places Entertainment Artifacts At Center Of American Experience

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The Smithsonian last week debuted its long in the works Entertainment Nation, an entire wing at the National Museum of American History devoted, for the first time, to pop culture.

With Dolby sound, digital projection and advanced lighting, it is everything you would expect to engage 21st century audiences.

But none of the bells and whistles distract from the actual artifacts. Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, long been on display as one of the most requested items at the museum, are now in one place along with less-viewed items like George Reeves’ Superman costume, Mr. Rogers’ sweater, the egg from Alien and Captain America’s shield.

The point is to show how these costumes, props, uniforms and other items represent a powerful and influential aspect of culture, showcased under the same roof as other American treasures like Abraham Lincoln’s hat and the Star-Spangled Banner.

“One of the statements that we want to make here is that this stuff is not separate from history,” said Ryan Lintelman, curator of the entertainment collection. “It is not something that we should look down on or excuse that you are into movies or sports or whatever it may be. It is actually really vitally fundamental to our identities and to our history.”

The idea of having one place devoted to pop culture, and its” importance in American history and the broader American experience,” dates to the 1970s and 80s, he said. But it has only been in the past decade that the idea came to fruition.

Entertainment Nation may not be the deep dive in the movies like the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures or George Lucas’ upcoming museum devoted to “narrative art,” but that is not the point. Visitors likely will first spot R2D2 and C3PO, costumes/characters used in Return of the Jedi and acquired from Lucasfilm. Steps away is a case featuring an 1884 Buffalo Bill play set and another with General Tom Thumb’s top hat, circa 1863.

Lintelman said that in uniting the collections of TV, theater, movies, sports and music, through many generations of history, they are “telling that same story through all of those different genres that we might see as different but actually all kind of relate.”

“They are the things that we do in our free time, but we define our identity through them, and they really matter to not only reflect the things that are happening in the nation’s history, but also to shape it,” he said.

For years there has been a special cache to having props donated and accepted by the Smithsonian, often with much fanfare. Norman Lear and the stars of All in the Family turned out for a ceremony in the late-1970s when the living room chair’s from the show, including Archie Bunker’s upholstered wingback, were donated, put in a glass case and featured in the museum’s Nation of Nations exhibit.

Dorothy’s ruby slippers were donated in 1979 by an anonymous owner who acquired then at the infamous MGM auction in 1970. (They are but one of four pairs used in the production, with another on display at the Academy Museum, and another pair the source of an extensive FBI investigation and continued mystery).

Lintelman cited the ruby slippers donation as “a big point where it was like, ‘Wow. This is worthy of being in a museum. A movie prop? Something so ephemeral? It’s not a great work of art. It is sort of low culture.’ Since then, we have helped create this memorabilia market, but then it’s become more complicated for us to collect these things.”

In the past four decades, these pop culture artifacts have become treasures, a contrast to the days when studios tossed out sets and costumes or stashed them away in prop warehouses. As we enter the age of the metaverse, there’s an argument to be made that these treasures only will increase in value, as a material contrast to the virtual world. When it recovered a stolen pair of the ruby slippers in 2018, the FBI said that they were estimated to be worth in the millions of dollars.

Linterman said that the process of acquiring objects has gotten more complicated as memorabilia gained the significance of fine art, and in contrast to private museums, they don’t have the budget to engage in bidding wars for the latest objects on the market.

What the Smithsonian does have is cache.

“We work with donors and say, ‘Do you want to be part of the story that we are telling? This is the national collection, it is held in perpetuity for the American people, so when you give something here, we will preserve it. We will make sure that it is available for generations to come,” he said. “That’s a pretty big bargaining point that we have, but obviously these things are very valuable, and the value has been rising over time as this huge memorabilia market has arisen.”

Most of the collection, now in thousands of objects, is donated. The Smithsonian also has a collection of sound recordings that number near 100,000. Only a fraction fits in the space, but exhibits will be updated, and more will be added to the collection.

“I say no a lot. We have limited resources and space and everything too,” Lintelman said. “So we have to meet a bar, and we even have processes internally where we have to kind of take that case to our colleagues and say, “We think we ought to collect this,’ and they approve or disapprove that idea. We are very thoughtful of how we spend the American taxpayers’ money, being a federal institution.”

The displays lay out a narrative history of pop culture over generations, genres and mediums, and there is a risk that what the Smithsonian is trying to do is cover too much in too little space. But there is something unifying about it all, helped by the fact that the museum emphasizes the shared experience of examining the complexity of the past.

As such, figures who were probably dismissed in their day as mere entertainment are given their due as culturally influential in retrospect. Charles Stratton, aka P.T. Barnum performer General Tom Thumb, was promoted as a “distinguished man in miniature,” the exhibit notes, he often “performed in gentleman’s attire, including a top hat. His act raised the question: was he mimicking a status he could never attain, or showing that all Americans could make their way to the top?”

That isn’t the case with other objects, like a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, hugely impactful in shaping public perceptions of slavery in the 1850s, or, more than a century later, the M*A*S*H direction signpost, representing a sitcom that shaped attitudes toward war and, in its final episode, achieved the highest audience in American history.

There is a section devoted to representation, from stereotypes to groundbreaking roles. “Entertainment has long traded in racist, dehumanizing stereotypes. But some comedians have used their craft to push back — to express the fullness of their humanity.” An example: A video display showed a clip of Barney Miller and actor Jack Soo, who was placed in an interment camp in World War II and spoke out about negative portrayals of Asian Americans. A more recent entry to the Smithsonian collection is devoted to Time’s Up, with Zoe Kravitz’s gown from the Golden Globe Awards in 2018, when attendees wore black to protest sexual assault and harassment.

Entertainment Nation ties to galleries in the culture wing, including one devoted to a rotating series of shows, starting with a display of Richard Avedon photographs, as well as areas dedicated to recorded sound and jazz and classical instruments. Another area is designed to capture the experience of video games, more of a living room setting to “recharge” with archival images, animations and retro titles.

There also is event space, where over the next week the museum is holding a festival with panels and screenings. This weekend they included a conversation on the legacy of Anna May Wong and another on Sesame Street. Among the objects displayed is Jim Henson’s first Kermit, and Henson historian Craig Shemin gave some of the backstory as he signed his book Sam and Friends: The Story of Jim Henson’s First Television Show.

Certain objects on display, like Prince’s yellow electric guitar, are reproduced so visitors can touch them or pose with them for Instagram moments. The significance of others, like Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy dummy, may be new to Millennials and later generations. Others are reminders of the breadth of what the Smithsonian has, like the Panasonic camcorder used to record the first winning entry for America’s Funniest Home Videos, or the tennis outfit that Billie Jean King wore for the Battle of the Sexes. There seems to be some mindfulness of trying to capture current fandom, not just with the prominence given to the Star Wars droids but to shows like The Walking Dead, with a display of the katana use by Danai Gurra as Michonne.

That it took so long to develop the space isn’t so unusual given that the Academy Museum opened just last year, after many decades of effort. The Smithsonian collection includes an early motion picture projector that the Society of Motion Picture Engineers donated in the 1920s, Lintelman noted, “because they said, ‘We don’t have a museum yet. We’re sure the industry will soon have a museum.’ And that was 1922.”

Now that there are a handful of museum spaces devoted to pop culture history, Lintelman said he doesn’t see them as competitors and work to cooperate with them. But the Smithsonian does have an advantage beyond its 175-year reputation: Admission is free.

Source : Deadline

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