Whether you lived through it, or it was before your time, everyone has their own ideas about the 1960s. The Missouri History Museum currently is hosting The 1968 Exhibit, which brings visitors through a tumultuous year that saw protests against the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., but also a revolution in pop culture with the likes of Laugh-In, and the emergence of denim and tie-dyed T-shirts. The exhibit originated at the Minnesota History Center, and is on display locally through Jan. 5. We spoke with Gwen Moore, Missouri History Museum’s in-house curator for the exhibit, about what makes The 1968 Exhibit so groovy.
Why is 1968 in particular such an interesting year to feature?
The ’60s were a pretty turbulent decade known for demonstrations and protests. In 1968, it reached its pinnacle. We saw more grassroots activism than ever before, whether it be in the civil rights or black power movements, the women’s movement with the rise of the new-wave feminists, the American Indian movement, the poor people’s movement, anti-war movement and student movement. There also were two tragic events that happened in 1968: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Bobby Kennedy in June. There was a lot of turmoil and angst after King was killed, with rioting in more than 100 cities.
The exhibit mixes all elements of society—from politics and protests to pop culture. What that intentional?
We usually do think of 1968 as an era of a lot of protests, but there was also a vibrant popular culture. It’s not just all the Democratic National Convention and police riots. Locally, the Cardinals were in the World Series, and the dedication of the Arch happened in 1968, but there was also some silliness. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, for example, were known as the clowns of the protest movement. They were always trying to inject something lighthearted into their protest. So we’re not just examining the serious side, but the fun side, as well. No exhibit can cover everything, but this one does a good job of combining it all.
What are some of the highlights?
The exhibit starts off talking about Vietnam, with a Huey helicopter in a living room setting, highlighting that fact that for the first time, television brought the war into people’s living rooms. It changed the way people looked at war. It also ends with the power of TV with a replica of Apollo 8. That was a sign of hope and renewal—people saw that we were accomplishing something that had never been done before. It really runs the gamut of emotions.
Another thing I like about the exhibit is the lounges—areas where you can sit down in 1960s-era furniture and watch Cronkite talk on TV about his doubts about the war. Some even have bean bag chairs—I don’t know how anyone got up from them, but you can sit on them. Being able to sit on the furniture and see what people were seeing, you can almost feel what it was like to be living at that particular moment in time.
What is your favorite part of the exhibit?
I don’t know if I could pick a favorite, but there are certain things that affect you. On the serious side, seeing Martin Luther King and the last speech he gave before he was assassinated was quite powerful to me. On the fun side, there’s a music quiz. Seeing Jimi Hendrix in his boots and his jacket tugs at you in different ways, and brings a smile to your face.
That’s what’s interesting about this particular exhibit: the broad appeal. I can’t imagine anybody going into this exhibit and not finding something they can connect to. I don’t care if you lived in 1968 or were born after 1968, you’ll find something appeals to you. Everybody knows about Martin Luther King’s assassination, but the exhibit does tell you things you didn’t know that you maybe thought you knew. King was controversial—he wasn’t universally loved. We love him in death and memorialize him; but during his life, he got a lot of criticism from both blacks and whites—people who thought that his day was over. Today we all claim him and his message, but this puts us in context. And in history, context is everything.
What kind of feedback are you getting from visitors?
One gentleman who walked through said, I never thought of myself being a part of history, but you’re talking about the Baby Boom generation. A lot of people experiencing it get nostalgic, especially at the music quiz and the fun parts of the exhibit. It brings back memories of what they were doing in 1968. And with things like the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, people can always say what they were doing on that day and talk about their own experience.