An Exhibit Review of The Ohio Historical Society’s “1950s: Building the American Dream”
“What lessons do we learn from Anne Frank?” So reads the first sentence of Edward Rothstein’s recent New York Times review of the new Anne Frank Exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance. The sentence is striking because it captures the primary mission of today’s museum: instruction. And, perhaps more than ever before, that educating is done with a heavy amount of text. I still have strained childhood memories of waiting for my sister and mom to hurry-up and finish reading every last thing at an exhibit so we could continue through the whole museum (of course, I should thank them for that now that I’m older and wiser). While I have not had the opportunity to visit the Anne Frank exhibit, it sounds like the diary itself—and the text inside it—is the main attraction holding the various pieces together. The exhibit certainly appears to have an instructional goal in mind, which is even captured in the museum’s name. This style of presentation is mirrored in the recently opened “1950s: Building the American Dream” exhibit at the Ohio Historical Society, even while the two exhibit topics differ greatly.
The OHS website reads that the 1950s exhibit “examines life during the decade as told through a Central Ohio family living in a Lustron home. Visitors are invited to explore the house through a completely interactive experience.” While not particularly interested in 1950s suburbia, I was curious to see how the OHS presents the era, seeing as how the decade is just as well-known for threats of nuclear apocalypse, violent racial segregation, and that elusive idea, the “American dream.” I was there to watch how patrons interacted with the exhibit, too. I can report that the exhibit is engaging and interesting on its own terms. It does not retreat from some of the darker sides of the period, but it does this only cautiously. If objects are taken as one measure, the brighter sides of the “American dream” are given precedence.
Back when I was a kid, one went to the museum and got to see whatever was there (I feel like I should add, “And we liked it!”). Perhaps you saw an advertisement in the paper, but you only got to see the exhibit once you physically arrived—physically—on-set. Today, however, the internet rules all. I was able to get quite a tour, of sorts, on the website before I actually visited. Many of the same kinds of resources presented in the actual, physical exhibit were present on the website. This web-preview did not turn me away from wishing to see the physical exhibit, however. It also provided access to at some patrons who could not otherwise visit the OHS in-person.
“1950s: Building the American Dream,” as I understood it, occupies four, medium-sized rooms on the main floor of the OHS. Once past the reconstructed bones of a mastodon and the gift-shop (of course), a series of touch-screen computers sits before a large billboard. The touchscreens number ten in all; each features a year between 1950 and 1959. Each touch-screen had several categories to explore including the president, the World Series, songs, and Tony Awards. Selecting each of these brought the viewer to a new screen with relevant information.The size of the billboard dominates the entryway into the exhibit. From what I could observe during my trip (when the exhibit seemed quite busy), patrons were most taken with viewing and commenting on the billboard’s smattering of factoids (although, I was informed by a friend that the weekend I visited was a bye week for OSU’s football team, so perhaps that worked in the museum’s favor). These were presented without much contextual interpretation. Some needed further explanation, while others did not. Reporting that the price of stamps went from costing three cents in 1950 to 45 cents today means very little without explaining the change in inflation. But maybe I’m over thinking it. Reporting that the unemployment rate today is over twice what it was between 1950 and 1955 or that the percent of women in the workforce has also doubled, however, is striking.Moving on from billboard and touchscreens, a large space in the middle of the whole exhibit is devoted to housing a 1950s Chevrolet hitched to a chrome camper. While undoubtedly impressive, especially to car and camper-enthusiasts I would think, to devote so much space to what really amounts to two objects drives home Steven Conn’s main argument from Do Museums Still Need Objects? He writes that museums generally have become “less crowded with stuff.” Each object, in turn, must narrate more of the story (23).
Moving clockwise through the rest of the exhibit, the next room is dominated by large placards on one side and three monitors on the other. Each screen cycles through five topics: Korean War, Duck & Cover, Polio, Segregation, and Discrimination. Each topic presents a video recording of an oral history. For instance, in the segregation video, a white man discusses having visited the Lincoln Theater during the decade with a few of his black friends who acted as his “bodyguards,” although he also reports having felt “safe,” too. Having traveled this far through the exhibit, I had only come into brief contact with two objects. The main presentation style relies heavily on text, images, and modern technology. This is, again, not necessarily a criticism. I observed one patron listening transfixed to the oral histories. And although Rosenzweig and Thelen’s study is over twenty years-old now, it is likely that she found the experience both authentic and authoritative—certainly better than her high school history class in any case.After this section, it is onto the main attraction: a fully rebuilt Lustron suburban home, complete with backyard. Three cardboard-style cutouts of the imagined ideal Lustron family greet the visitor. Fittingly then perhaps, this section seemed to draw in families especially, with kids running around in all directions, exhilarated by the quirkiness of the place. In many ways, I suspect, it was very similar to their own homes, but different just enough to be interesting. Patrons excitedly sifted through the drawers in the master bedroom, examining everything from the makeup to the driver license. The boy’s room sports model military airplanes and a Davy Crockett-style cap and toy musket.
Leaving the home and accompanying educational billboard, the next space (behind the Chevy and trailer) houses lots of images of the decade and four collections of artifacts grouped together. The emphasis on photographs strengthens Steven Conn’s claims that museums stress text over objects. Each of these smaller bite-size exhibits do not present a preponderance of objects in my opinion. For example, the centerpiece here is a wedding dress and suit surrounded by the gifts a married couple might receive on their wedding day. But each object, just like the Chevy, must tell more of the story. The museum is not showing off several examples of gifts or what different ethnicities might give or how. The one example stands in for the many.
The last room—which might be considered separate from the 1950s exhibit—is what I would call, drawing upon Carl Becker’s famous phrase, “every family their own museum curator”-room. This room encouraged folks to consider the many ways that they might preserve and engage with their family’s micro-history. Photographs and text dominate the room. “Connecting to your history” is the overarching theme. Interestingly enough, one placard declares, “Everyday objects tell a story—they remind you of a favorite memory or reveal an extraordinary secret.” It then asks, “What object or item that belongs to you has a great story to tell?” The room then offers some advice on how best to physically preserve family objects. Two computers also sit in the room. One ostensibly would let the patron explore newspapers from the period . . . except, at the time I visited the exhibit, it was based on a federally-run database. It was, thus, shutdown, another victim of the Tea Party-led attack on all things connected to the federal government.
In the end, the exhibit is faithful to its topic: 1950s American suburbia. That is the “American dream” presented anyway. The theme does not go completely unchallenged; the added themes of the Cold War and civil rights movement feel perfunctory. No civil rights or Cold War objects are presented, for instance. Material covering these topics is text and image-based for the most part (aside from the brief oral history section). This may, I hesitantly conclude, allow patrons to enjoy the suburban experience without considering the larger context. But perhaps this is more authentic at the end of the day, for that is undoubtedly how most white suburbanites lived their lives. The addition here and there of civil rights features found on the placards and opening billboard functions in a “celebratory rather than reflective” way. Even with artifacts, however, Thomas J. Schlereth reminds us that a display of objects “often promotes a view of social history as a story of success and achievement” (19) In this way, American museums are imitating American textbooks. Inclusion is stressed but not necessarily critical reflection.
Much of America keeps a nostalgia for the Fifties. One has to look no further than the many Fifties-themed restaurants where customers and employees alike are entertained (or tortured) by costumes and choreographed dancing. Apparently, these places tell us, nothing is as “American” as a diner with its apple pie and poodle skirts. And like American textbooks and museums, inclusion is the name of game—neither racial segregation nor mutually-assured destruction haunt these diners. A bubble of nostalgia and selective memory protects them.