Enter the Smithsonian 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 would react to the “Star Wars” duo, Smithsonian curator John Troutman replied, “Well, I can describe my reaction: Bewildered! These are essential characters in my life. They have deeply affected my soul.”
The droids are part of the Smithsonian’s new exhibit “Entertainment Nation/Nacion del Espectaculo,” a bilingual examination of 150 years of US history through its music, sports and moving images.
John Dickerson of CBS News asked, “In our great American story, what do you think Star Wars has done for us?”
“That’s a great question,” Troutman said. “And I think it was at the top of George Lucas’s mind when he started writing the first movie in 1973, and there was a lot going on in the United States in 1973. The US was still deeply involved in the Vietnam War. He was worried about the future of the Republic.
Our escape from history is also a part of our history, says museum director and historian Anthea Hartig: “Popular culture tells us many things about ourselves – who we want to be, how we treat our children and how we treat our elders.”
And sometimes, more than 200 different things talk to each other. “Star Wars,” released the same year, and Roots’ artwork show how America can be captivated by both fantasy and brutal reality.
Not all objects at the Smithsonian are challenging; Many are just happy. There’s a Mr. Rogers sweater, a signpost from “Mash” and a puppet Howdy Doody.
Others are trophies of triumph (Oprah’s gold-plated microphone; Billie Jean King’s “Battle of the Sexes” tennis outfit; Jackie Robinson’s autographed baseball), and objects of genius (like Prince’s guitar, displayed with a hands-on replica).
Music curator Crystal Klingenberg said the yellow guitar in “Purple Rain” was white and was repeatedly repainted to match Prince’s ever-changing appearance. “The guitar has seven layers of colors … different colors,” he said.
“Prince was a fascinating character who married not only the mystique and sexuality of a rock star, but also the skill of a composer and musician,” Klingenberg said. “There’s something about seeing the real deal in front of you that can transport you through time and space.”
And also help the visitor imagine what might have been. The collection includes the dress Selena wore to the 1994 Tejano Music Awards, in 1995 at the age of 23, at the height of her career, a year before she was murdered by the founder of her fan club. “Not only is Selena an incredible talent and this story of hope, but also the tragedy of that hope gone too soon,” Klingenberg said.
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 meant so much to them as children, maybe, or they were so involved in the story. And when they were on temporary display for a few months this year while we were building the new show, all the disasters happened: Where are the ruby slippers? Why aren’t they on display right now? But luckily, now he’s on the show – for 20 years!”
By then, many visitors need a parent or grandparent to explain why certain objects are so important, to explain how simple objects can unlock a child’s imagination about what they can do in the future.
Like, be a rock star.
For more information:
- “Entertainment Nation/Nacion del Espectaculo” (opened December 9) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.
- “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
- Selena photos courtesy of Al Rendon
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Chad Cardin.