Saturday, June 17, 2017

Pop Culture

As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, pop culture shaped a lot of who I am. Television programs ruled my schedule and the characters, storylines, and props associated with those shows were part of the fabric of my youth.

Last fall my husband and I took our children to Washington, D.C. In addition to monument gazing and Capitol touring, we spent a ton of time in the Smithsonian Institute museums. Each building held treasures to behold, but the National Museum of American History and the American Stories exhibition with its salute to pop culture dazzled me and the young girl who still lurks within me.

At the time we saw Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the 1939 classic movie The Wizard of Oz

In the past at that museum I’ve seen Fonzie’s iconic leather jacket from the nostalgic television hit Happy Days, and the familiar chair that acerbic Archie Bunker sat in for years on the ground-breaking All in the Family. These items presented behind glass delight and enthrall me, then as well as now.

It may seem silly, but clearly the Smithsonian curators recognize the power of movies’ and television’s power to unite and offer a celebrated unity. What keeps us cohesive in this ever divisive world is the creative art form offered in motion pictures and television’s most popular series.

Perhaps seeing Jeannie’s genie bottle, Hawkeye Pierce’s combat boots, or Olivia Newton-John’s black satin pants from Grease offer the throngs of people who shuffle through the museum a momentary feeling of nostalgia or even happiness.

As newer generations start their pilgrimage to the nation’s capital and file through the museums’ halls, the displays reflect more artifacts from a more recent age mixed with the relics of the past.

The vast landscape that television has become has diluted the shared and collective recognition of societal images. No longer does a program’s season or series finale command audiences to tune in in real time or at all. 

In the summer of 1980 the topic was, “Who shot JR (Ewing)?” from the popular nighttime soap opera Dallas. On the last day of February 1983, a record number of Americans watched the final episode of the 11 season epic television show M*A*S*H.

Today a handful of people tune in to see who The Bachelor gives his final rose or what zombie killed what series regular on The Walking Dead, but that is nowhere near as powerful or connecting as what used to be on the television landscape.

The times have changed, but the power of nostalgia for some of us is stronger than ever. And, one day, the youth of today will cram into the Smithsonian to gander at what their youthful images were. I hope it is as much as an impact for them as it is for me.

If you were a museum curator for a popular culture exhibition, what popular artifacts would you include from your youth?