Reflections on the “1968” exhibit


The Minnesota History Center’s blockbuster “1968″ exhibit has definitely got museum visitors talking – during and after the exhibit.  Having made but one pilgrimage to the MHC for the exhibit I have been mulling it over in the aftermath of what I do hope is the first of several visits during the month to come.

Reflecting on my MLK Day visit evokes vivid images not so much of the exhibit but as the visitors. First there were the young folks (because it was MLK Day the audience was skewed to the school-age crowd.) The boys were exploding with military adrenalin at the very sight of the helicopter (which I found almost unbearable); I heard in-depth discussions of the relative effectiveness of grenades vs. rifles – the kill-power was of great concern to a couple of pre-teens in particular. The little girls seemed more concerned with their own 2012-era finery and the blaring music from ancient times than with the subtleties of feminism.

And then there were the moms and dads – “That was five years before Mommy was born…” was the sort of phrase I heard repeatedly. These were good parents, trying to expose their kids to history they themselves had learned about from stories their elders passed down or from documentaries. They knew the big names (Humphrey, the Beatles, RFK) and many had a dad or granddad who had served in the Nam.

It was the grandparents I watched with the keenest interest. They were quiet, reflective, remembering.  Me, too. I was remembering where I was, with whom, what I was wearing during the protests, the day MLK died, the torturous Dem Convention in Chicago, the Children’s Crusade led by McCarthy. I remembered the music, the clothes, the funeral of MLK (which I listened to time after time.)

The memories and reflective spirit have been with me since. I’ve talked with friends about our reactions. Underwhelmed, we said to each other. We were there.  We know what it was like. We had friends and family members in Vietnam. We marched for civil rights and against the war. For my part I was working at a predominantly African American college in inner-city Washington, DC throughout that tumultuous year so life in a burning city is etched permanently in my living memory, along with the strident voices of “women’s lib” before it had a clear thrust, much less a handle.

The MHC exhibit is captivating, informative and a fine tip of the historic iceberg it represents. This is a good thing for Minnesotans of every age.

Still, what chaffs for those some of us who were submerged in all that – the war, the riots, the murder, the music — is that we have been “museum-ized.” We are not the observers but the subject of the exhibit. We want to shout out, to inform the visitor’s experience with our own perceptions and experiences.

When I mentioned this concept of museumization to a group, one friend was quick to recollect a visit that he and his wife had made to a history of technology exhibit. They were early computer geeks, when computers were behemoth and geeks had not yet become a career option. After viewing the punch cards and IBM 360 machines behind glass enclosures these early adapters concluded that they should be behind glass as part of the exhibit – museumized in real time.

We expect museums to explore and expose remote relics of the past to those of us who are living and learning from a position of power built on the progress of humankind and on our power to shape the story.  It’s a different and uncomfortable experience to find oneself as the subject memorialized on film or photo or bit of realia.  The universal response seems to be an irresistible urge to correct, or at least augment, the story.

This bit of introspection is helping me understand with newfound clarity the response American Indians have to the depiction and interpretation of their role in Minnesota history. Though this was not the intent of 1968, for me it’s a healthy byproduct of a memorable museum experience.

Museumization is not easy for a person or for a people.