So you want to curate an exhibit about the 1960s?

As staff of the National Museum of American History, we're often told that we have "the coolest jobs." We know we're lucky! But what's it actually like to curate an exhibition or display? Curator Joan Boudreau shares the development process for our current, small display on the early 1960s. If you're an aspiring museum staffer or on the production team for Night at the Museum 4, this post may answer some of your questions about the realities of museum work.

You can't just create an exhibition on whatever topic you want.
Getting colleagues' support for a show is an important first step. I proposed the early 1960s display in response to an internal call for proposals to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the museum's opening. I intended the display to help set the stage and provide context for the opening, in 1964, of the National Museum of History and Technology (our previous name).

Paper dress, 1966-1967
"The Souper" paper dress from 1966-1967 is on temporary display and will be swapped out to protect it from longterm light exposure. Gift of Rosemary Holz Slocum.

Developing an exhibition on history that people actively remember can be tricky.
The 1960s are still very present in people's minds and the interpretation of the 1960s would need to be very sensitively handled. As a young 'un during the 1960s, the events surrounding me seemed particularly difficult to absorb and understand. It would seem, however, that the period's components of change created burdens for all of us to live through, remember, and reflect upon.

The early 1960s brought us the Cold War and the Vietnam War. They brought us JFK, LBJ, and new federal programs associated with the Space Race, foreign aid, and health. There were activities associated with the environment, religion, and civil rights, including women's and workers' rights. And they brought us creative responses to sports, music, fashion, health, literature, comedy, art, food, television and film.

How should I begin to talk about these diverse subjects? Here's where many people might contemplate escape—I certainly did.

The Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961 increased the possibility of a nuclear war. This kit was used to measure radiation exposure in the event of an atomic explosion. (Gift of David C. Eisendrath)
The Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961 increased the possibility of a nuclear war. This kit was used to measure radiation exposure in the event of an atomic explosion. (Gift of David C. Eisendrath)

A common job hazard: getting overwhelmed by your subject matter.
But how could I prepare an exhibition about this complicated era? The early 1960s was a period steeped in tradition but awakening to the tremendous changes of the rest of the decade and beyond. How could I represent the activities, causes, events, individuals, innovations, messages, movements, reactions, and styles that were a part of the era? Should I talk about the people involved, or their causes? Should I include portraits, or artifacts created by or worn by the participants? Or memorabilia prepared at the time or created much later?

You can't tell every story.
I had paired with a co-curator when the time came for our first decisions together and, after some discussion, we chose 22 individual subject-themes: Art, Civil Rights, the Cold War, Comedy, the Comics, the Environment, Fashion, Film, Food, Foreign Aid, Health, Literature, Music, Politics, Religion, the Space Race, Sports, Transportation, TV, the Vietnam War, and Women's and Worker's rights.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestselling book warning of the dangers of the unrestricted use of chemical pesticides led to significant industry changes
Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestselling book warning of the dangers of the unrestricted use of chemical pesticides led to significant industry changes

We decided to include two artifacts for each subject-theme, which allowed us additional word count space to make the points we wanted to make. Of course, this made certain themes, like music, especially challenging. How do you use two objects representing one genre, group, or individual involved in the early '60s music world with country, folk, pop, rock, rhythm and blues, soul, and British Invasion music? An obvious choice to me was to use memorabilia associated with The Beatles (even though they are not American) especially because of their first American concert in Washington, D.C., during 1964. Everyone has a favorite genre and/or band, though, and discussions about the most important music/musician(s) of the era invariably ended (and end) in disagreement.

Ticket stub from The Beatles' 1964 concert in Washington, D.C.
Ticket stub from The Beatles' 1964 concert in Washington, D.C.

Size matters.
One of the limitations in this show was the proposed display case size, with a length of 30 feet and a depth of three feet. The available space for introductory labels and individual artifact labels was also limiting. While having a small area can be challenging, space limitations can also help narrow down a sprawling story.

Your favorite artifacts might be busy.
Another limitation had to do with museum artifacts available for display. The item you may like to use may not exist in the collections or it may already be on view in another exhibition. The artifact may be too small, or two-dimensional, and perhaps less impressive on display than you'd prefer. We aimed for exciting, three-dimensional objects as often as possible.

One of our artifact-finding dilemmas in the theme of Politics had to do with the First Ladies. Many of the museum's presidential artifacts, costumes in particular, were not available to us because of their display elsewhere in the museum, in this case in the exhibition on the First Ladies. How could we represent the First Ladies without using their already-displayed inaugural gowns? Turns out the subject-theme of Fashion allowed us a separate opportunity to look at the influences of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, using the styles available to her from some of her favorite couture designers, such as Oleg Cassini and Coco Chanel.

These 1961 Richard Avedon photographs capture First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wearing a dress designed in collaboration with Oleg Cassini, her official White House couturier
These 1961 Richard Avedon photographs capture First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy wearing a dress designed in collaboration with Oleg Cassini, her official White House couturier

You'll be haunted by light levels.
Light is dangerous to museum objects. Our conservation team regularly advises us about light level exposure strengths and lengths of exposure time in order to preserve our artifacts. Constantly swapping out or removing objects also creates a lot of work for museum staff, so the trick was to select objects that could safely stay on view for the length of the display and limit the need for rotation.

In the end, a successful exhibition gives visitors a taste that makes them hungry to learn more.
What we came away with in our very-small-for-a-very-large-subject exhibition was a nice range of artifacts, some common, others unique, which will give our viewers just a taste of the era.

The design scheme for the current display on early 1960s American Culture
The design scheme for the current display on early 1960s American Culture

A disappointment, and a comfort, about the results of the project was the idea that the era was a booming symphony of change which in any space, 30 feet or 30,000 feet, would be hard to cover fully. 

There are clearly many more stories to recount in this era, but we hope this representation will offer a beginning to an understanding of the period and an incentive to investigate further.

So, future curators, I'm curious. How would you tell the story of the early 1960s in a small display? What five objects might you select? How would you approach the many themes and complications of this era? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Joan Boudreau is a curator in the Graphic Arts Collection at the National Museum of American History. This display will be on view through December 14, 2014, along with a companion display on 1960s science. You can also explore the objects in the online exhibition. She has also blogged about the pony press and ongoing research on a Confederate printing press

Posted at 11:22 am EDT in 50th Anniversary,From the Collections

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