Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Chicago History Museum's '1968 Exhibit' Provides Informative Look at an Important Year -- Museum Exhibit Review

Exhibition Review

The 1968 Exhibit
Chicago History Museum
Thru January 4

I was only around for 77 days, 4 hours and 19 minutes of 1968, and I remember absolutely none of it.

Despite this, and well beyond it being the year I entered the world, I have long been aware of the importance of 1968.

Few years have ever been as tumultuous, or contained as many massively newsworthy events--even just from a United States perspective.

So for reasons with rather little to do with my personal connection--though I can't deny the inborn affinity abetted my interest--I was intrigued to see The 1968 Exhibit at the Chicago History Museum.

I was happy to time my late 2014 visit with a Bank of America Museums on Us weekend, which allows their customers free entry to participating institutions nationwide, but my friend Dave--who as a non-BofA customer paid the regular $14 fee for full museum access including all special exhibits--also voiced his pleasure with the 1968 show, finding it well-worth his time and money.

Many of the year's most momentous events were lowlights rather than highlights--the ongoing Vietnam War, the death of 17,000 U.S. soldiers in it (in '68), the protests against it, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the tempestuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago--and informative displays covered all of these with nice depth, short of an imposing plethora of wall text.

From an actual helicopter used in Vietnam to the camera that captured the most iconic image of RFK's death to shoes worn by civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy in the company of MLK, the exhibit--a traveling show organized by the Minnesota History Center in partnership with the CHM and two other museums--features several compelling artifacts that amplify the monthly timelines chronicling the year's big events.

Short but informative videos address the King assassination and its aftermath, and the DNC and accompanying protests, with other interactive offerings available on demand for those desiring greater depth on the timeline events.

From Cesar Chavez to the Poor People's Protest to the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics, many additional socially significant touchstones are covered.

But the show also portrays the lighter side of 1968, though not without noting how the war, protests, riots and assassinations wove through the music, movies and television of the times.

Just some of the memorabilia I enjoyed seeing--and freely photographing--includes articles of clothing worn by Jimi Hendrix, Mr. Rogers and Catfish Hunter, who pitched a perfect game for the nascent Oakland A's on May 18.

While not all that much was truly revelatory about events that have long been well-chronicled--though it was cool to see kids taking in the exhibit, and having a good go at a 1968 music quiz--I was struck by a few things that reflected how different the world was then, but also how similar times are now.

Racial strife and police brutality unfortunately are just as topical today as they were in 1968.

And given our 21st century, 24-hour news, Twitterverse sensibilities, it was jarring to note a panel on RFK that imparted that when he announced his candidacy for President in March 1968--he would be killed on June 5--it came as a surprise to sitting president Lyndon Johnson and the other prime Democratic contender, Eugene McCarthy.

Although it was repeatedly illustrated how Vietnam was the first war to be chronicled on TV, and rather intensively at that, the striking differences of what was meant and effected by mass communication between then and now is just one of the striking between-the-lines the exhibit imparts.

I, and even more so Dave, was familiar with many--though certainly not all--of the events mentioned on each of the monthly timelines. 

But we were both a bit befuddled and bemused by the March 4 citation of the "Linda LeClair Affair," which found Barnard co-ed Linda LeClair disciplined for living off-campus with her boyfriend, thereby "focusing national attention on young people, sexuality, and women's liberation." (Learn more here.)

I certainly get that social mores were quite a bit different in 1968 than they are today. But the Linda LeClair Affair doesn't seem it should have been that big a deal then--and my mom says she doesn't recall ever hearing about it--and given that a Google search primarily brings up related references to Barnard College and "The 1968 Exhibit," it certainly seems (particularly compared to much else that happened that year) to be barely a footnote in history.

Yet still, on some level of appreciating 1968 for the day-to-day lives of those who were conscious for all of it, it--like the exhibit itself--seems worth knowing about.

If you can get to the Chicago History Museum--previously long known as the Chicago Historical Society and located at Clark & North--by January 4 (allowing for one last free weekend for Bank of America customers), it's well worth taking a trip back in time to the year of my birth. 

(More 1968 Exhibit photos below. To learn more visit the museum and exhibit websites.)


There is always something that can be learned from the Chicago History Museum's permanent collection, though I've found it a bit less interactive than ideal. 

But as a long-term "temporary" exhibit, I highly recommend Vivian Maier's Chicago, a photo gallery of a terrific photographer essentially unknown during her lifetime. The excellent documentary, Finding Vivian Maier--not part of the CHM exhibit but one of the best movies I've seen this year--can provide great background on this unique artist. 

And for those who love fashion, Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mile, which showcases several nifty dresses sold in shops along North Michigan Avenue over the years, is well worth a gander.

Below are some additional photos I took in The 1968 Exhibit:


1 comment:

Suzi said...

As an adolescent in 1968, I was very tuned into the era as were most of my peers. In many ways, I have never left it as I am always comparing then and now. This sounds like a terrific exhibit.