Looking back on "M*A*S*H," the show and the exhibition

By volunteer Lucy Harvey
A black and white photograph of a wall inside a building covered in a line of photographs with text panels and large lettering.

As frightening reports of North Korea's nuclear missile tests fill the news, many of us long for the days when the only television coverage of Pyongyang's military might came in the form of conventional bomb attacks on the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, the fictitious medical unit featured in the hit show M*A*S*H.

A black and white photograph of a wall inside a building covered in a line of photographs with text panels and large lettering.

The groundbreaking, dark comedy about the Korean War (1950–1953) debuted 45 years ago this week on September 17, 1972, and ran for 11 years. The show was a powerful touchstone because although it depicted events in early 1950s Korea, M*A*S*H examined issues prevalent in 1970s and '80s America when it was being made. The series' poignant and relevant story lines explored such contemporary concerns as discord over the Vietnam War, the loss of trust in the government following the Watergate scandal, the changing roles of women with the burgeoning feminist movement, and the eventual zeitgeist shift away from political protest and idealism toward individual fulfillment.

After filming for M*A*S*H wrapped up, the museum accepted two complete sets from the show, the Operating Room and the "Swamp," or bachelor officers' quarters, in addition to several props, costumes, and scripts. The number of objects that arrived and joined our collection was staggering. Early correspondence between Twentieth Century Fox and the museum reveals that curators were also interested in an ambulance and a helicopter, although neither was ultimately donated.

A black and white photograph of three cots with trays covered in surgery equipment. There is shelving with boxes and jars and white, floor-length curtains.

This was the first of only two instances in which the museum accepted an entire set from a television production. The only other one was accessioned in 2001, when Julia Child donated the kitchen of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which also just happened to serve as the set for Jacques and Julia at Home, a cooking show with renowned French chef Jacques Pépin.

A black and white photograph of a museum display with photographs, text, costumes, and other props and objects.

Nowadays, the museum tends to accept just a few representative props and costumes from significant shows, like Walter White's hazmat suit, hat, and gas mask from Breaking Bad, the oversized hour glass from the opening sequence of the 50-plus-year-old soap opera Days of Our Lives, and the goldfish bowlthat sat on the desk of press secretary C.J. Cregg from The West Wing.

In 1983, only five months after M*A*S*H's final episode, which the Nielsen ratings company crowned the most-watched series finale ever, the museum staged a wildly popular exhibition on the television show. Twice extended, the exhibition ran from July 30, 1983, through February 3, 1985. Lines got so long that the museum distributed timed passes and limited the length of each guest's stay. More than 1,073,849 visits took place, with guests often making return trips. An otherwise dry attendance memo noted, "The one millionth visitor passed through the exhibit on Saturday, December 1 between 11:00 and 12:00 noon."

A white piece of paper with typewriting and handwriting on it.

By comparison, one of the hottest Smithsonian tickets recently was the Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrorsretrospective for the Japanese artist known for mirrored rooms that reflect glowing sculptures. According to Smithsonian attendance figures, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden exhibition averaged more than 53,000 visitors each of the three months it was open, while the M*A*S*H exhibition averaged nearly 60,000 a month for its 18-month run.

A white rectangular piece of paper positioned vertically with a smear of olive running across it with a red cross and black text.

The opening salvo in the M*A*S*H exhibition was a photo essay pairing 15 pictures from the series with similar scenes from Korea and Vietnam. The full sets of the Operating Room and the Swamp were also on display, complete with searingly bright studio lights that had to be dimmed for the museum setting. A collection of 30 costumes and props were also showcased, along with early scripts and one of the show's many Emmys.

A structure with a square construction held up by wooden beams with a tented roof covered in dark fabric. There is a sign next to is with painted planks displaying the names of different world cities.

According to the exhibition press release, the show's creators were so meticulous about faithfully representing U.S. military life during the Korean War that most of the costumes conformed to 1953 U.S. Army specifications, although in many cases polyester was substituted for cotton to make the costumes more durable. The press release also states that the Swamp's furnishings were checked for accuracy against descriptions in the 1950 Sears Roebuck catalogue. Medical and military equipment were all authentic except for items too small to register on television. As a result, the museum's collections of medical science and military history of the early 1950s were significantly enhanced, and a large portion of the M*A*S*H collection went to those two divisions.

The museum exhibition highlighting the sets from the fictitious M*A*S*H unit during the real war led to some confusion about authenticity. One visitor wrote a letter to complain that she could see a modern supermarket label on a jar of olives in the Swamp.

"Your sharp eyes picked out those recent olives and you are right. They are the ones that were used in the 'Swamp' during the filming of the show, so we must keep them the way they are. We are not exhibiting the Korean War, but rather TV's version of it," wrote Ellen Roney Hughes, curator in the Division of Community Life, to the concerned visitor.

An early draft of the museum's exhibition script lists "M*A*S*H”: The Two Wars" as the working title, referring to both the Cold War conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. But three years into the series, the Vietnam War officially came to an end, and by the time M*A*S*H concluded in 1983, the characters and story lines had moved away from dissension about the war and delved more into the fulfillment of individual characters. As a result, the museum exhibit title became "M*A*S*H:" Binding Up the Wounds.

"M*A*S*H's evolution from protest to sensitivity took place as Vietnam vanished from the media and faded from the memories of all but the combatants," wrote David Marc and Paul Buhle in the scholarly journal American Film.

The M*A*S*H franchise began with "MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors" written in 1968 by Richard Hooker, the pseudonym for Richard Hornberger, a surgeon who had served in Korea. In 1970, Ring Lardner, a screenwriter who had been blacklisted by Hollywood movie studios during the Red Scare of the 1940s and '50s, adapted it for the screen. Robert Altman directed the satirical movie starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. In 1972, Larry Gelbart created the television show.

After a lackluster first year in which it was in danger of being canceled, M*A*S*H rocketed to a top-ten position in viewer ratings and remained in the top 20 for the rest of its run. According to Executive Producer Burt Metcalfe, the writing team voluntarily took itself off the air in 1983 "to protect itself from devolution" or ruining the show. In press reports, Metcalfe said that the creative team had relied on real doctors who had been stationed in Korea to volunteer their stories, but after 11 years, they ultimately ran out of material.


Poster for exhibit at Smithsonian

The show lucratively lives on in syndication and has gained new audiences among those born decades after the Vietnam War ended. The M*A*S*H props, costumes and sets are sure to appear in future exhibits, especially since the museum is preparing a 2020 show exploring the history of television. But, if you are channel surfing and hear the familiar chords of the guitar, see the whirl of the chopper blades, and then catch olive drab-clad medical personnel breaking into a run, you don't have to wait for the stenciled letters of M*A*S*H to be superimposed on the screen to know you're in store for a half hour of thoughtful comedy involving poignant characters and irreverent dialogue.

Lucy Harvey is a volunteer with the Division of Culture and the Arts.