Smithsonian exhibit explores how entertainment shaped America

Step into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, later this week, and you’ll be greeted by two friends: C-3PO and R2-D2, as they appeared in “Return of the Jedi.” When asked how visitors reacted to the “Star Wars” pair, Smithsonian curator John Troutman replied, “Well, I can describe my reaction: stunned! They are essential characters in my life. They have deeply marked my soul.”

The droids are part of the Smithsonian’s new “Entertainment Nation/Nación del espectáculo” exhibit, a bilingual examination of 150 years of United States history through its music, sports and moving images.

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Here are the droids they’re looking for: Smithsonian curator John Troutman and CBS News’ John Dickerson with C-3PO and R2-D2.

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John Dickerson of CBS News asked, “In our larger American history, what do you think Star Wars has done for us?”

“That’s a great question,” Troutman said. “And I think that was George Lucas’ priority. He had started writing the first film in 1973, and of course in 1973 there was a lot going on in the United States. The United States was still deeply involved in the Vietnam War. He was concerned about the future of the republic.”

Even our escapes from history are part of our history, said museum director and historian Anthea Hartig: “Popular culture tells us a lot about ourselves – who we want to be, how we treat our children and how we treat our elders.”

And sometimes the more than 200 different objects talk to each other. Artifacts from “Star Wars” and Roots, both released in the same year, show how America can be captivated by both fantasy and brutal reality.

Not all Smithsonian objects are difficult; many are just a delight. There’s Mr. Rogers’ sweater, the “MASH” sign, and the Howdy Doody puppet.

Others are triumph trophies (Oprah’s gold-plated microphone; Billie Jean King’s “Battle of the Sexes” tennis outfit; a baseball autographed by Jackie Robinson) and genius items (like the guitar of Prince, displayed next to a practical replica).

Music curator Krystal Klingenberg said the yellow guitar was white in the movie “Purple Rain” and had been repainted multiple times to match Prince’s ever-changing appearance. “The guitar has seven coats of paint…a variety of colors,” she said.

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Prince’s guitar with multiple colors.

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“Prince is a compelling character who really embraced not only the mystery and the sexuality of the rock star, but also the virtuosity of the composer and the musician,” Klingenberg said. “There’s something about seeing the real deal in front of you that can transport you through time and space.”

And even help visitors imagine what might have been. The collection includes the outfit Selena wore to the 1994 Tejano Music Awards, a year before she was murdered in 1995 at age 23, at the peak of her career, by her fan club founder. “Selena not only becomes this story of incredible talent and promise, but also the tragedy of all those promises gone too soon,” Klingenberg said.

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Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939).

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No item speaks to visitors more than the Ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 MGM classic, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Troutman said: “We see people cry when they see them, because they’re very meaningful to them in their childhood, maybe, or because they’re also so invested in the story. And when they’ve been temporarily taken out of display for a few months this year as we built the new exhibit, all havoc ensued: Where are the Ruby slippers? Why aren’t they on display right now? But luckily now they’ve been on display – for 20 years!”

By then, many visitors will need a parent or grandparent to explain why certain elements are so important, to explain how simple objects could free a child’s imagination about what they could do in the future.

Like, being a rock star.

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“Welcome, this is where I live, this is where I dream my dreams.”

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For more information:

  • “Entertainment Nation/Show Nation”, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, DC (begins December 9)
  • “Entertainment Nation: How Music, Television, Film, Sports, and Theater Shaped the United States” by Kenneth Cohen and John W. Troutman (Smithsonian Books), in hardcover, available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound
  • Photos of Selena courtesy of Al Rendon


Story produced by Jay Kernis. Publisher: Chad Cardin.

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