What our visitors are saying about Entertainment Nation

By Larry Margasak
Entrance to the Entertainment Nation gallery

As a volunteer with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, I roam the building with a retired journalist’s curiosity—engaging visitors about their favorite parts of the nation’s past. While in the dynamic, year-old Entertainment Nation exhibition, visitors told me how objects from the history of sports, television, music, and films were important in their lives. I realized this would make an interesting article for the museum’s blog, so I spent four days speaking to visitors about the impact of what they saw.

Margenia Davis, visiting from Paris, Tennessee, said she was “breathless” standing in front of the costumes for Star Wars characters R2-D2 and C-3PO in Entertainment Nation.

Maris Garner from Memphis, Tennessee, visited the exhibition and concluded that it “engaged all the senses: music, visuals, bright colors, and lighting.” Her daughter, Audrey, looking at the exhibition through the eyes of a 10-year-old, focused on a clip from the entryway videos that lasted only a second: a dancing hippo from the movie Fantasia.

Entrance to the Entertainment Nation gallery
Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, and the R2-D2 and C-3PO costumes from “Return of the Jedi” are some of the objects that greet visitors at the entrance to “Entertainment Nation.”

Since opening in December 2022, the exhibition has thrilled tens of thousands of visitors with its dynamic mix of objects, music, and videos taken from the nation's entertainment history. As its opening label explains, for “more than 150 years, entertainment has provided a forum for important national conversations about what kind of people we are—and want to be.”

The exhibition team will be rotating objects in and out of the show throughout its expected 20-year life—a necessity, given the museum’s commitment to preserving its collections for future generations. But the items on display during Entertainment Nation’s first year have already had an impact on the museum’s visitors.

Ranging in age from 7 to 70, 28 individuals spoke about the ways their lives connected to what they saw in the exhibition.
The objects cited most often were in a section devoted to children’s television. The Muppets and Mr. Rogers’ sweater and shoes were standouts. (Note: Rogers’ sweater has since been rotated with Mr. McFeely’s costume, in order to show more items from the collection. Rogers’ shoes, however, remain on view.) Next were the Star Wars R2-D2 and C-3PO costumes, cited by six visitors, several of whom said they watched every movie in the series. Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, which arrived at the museum in 1979, brought back memories to visitors young and old.

Mr. Rogers’ shoes, around 1980 (2019.0101.02)

Davis, 60, of Paris, Tennessee, said she became so emotional seeing the Star Wars costumes that “I put my hand over my heart and leaned against the glass. I was in ecstasy.” Susan Ranes, 52, Louisburg, North Carolina, had a similar reaction to the Muppets. “Seeing the originals in person was almost mind-blowing, almost a religious experience, because of the impact Jim Henson had on us,” she said. Anna Clement, 39, from Tunbridge Wells, England, remarked that she “grew up in Poland watching Sesame Street. I started learning English from the show.”

Margenia Davis, smiling, poses for a picture in front of the R2-D2 and C-3PO costumes on display
Margenia Davis, pictured here, told the author that she placed her hand over her heart in front of R2-D2 and C-3PO. Photo by Lynn Vasquez. (1984.0302.01 and 1984.0302.02)

Visitors viewed objects that reminded them of their favorite television shows and movies. Hillary Kroboth, 40, of Waxhaw, North Carolina, who “always watched Oprah,” liked seeing a gold-plated microphone used on the host’s long-running show. Grayson Watson, 29, from Chicago, who admired Jon Stewart for “communicating the absurdity of the news,” talked about seeing the comedian’s suit from The Daily Show. Mike Groves, 58, of Salinas, California, thought Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky robe demonstrated that “everybody’s got a shot,” even “a total underdog.”

Natalie Williamson, 23, of Raleigh, North Carolina, thought the badge used by actress Gillian Anderson to portray Dr. Dana Scully on The X-Files demonstrated that “women are powerful.”

While Rocky and Captain America were fictional heroes cited by visitors, several people were awed by displays featuring objects from their real-life heroes: boxer Muhammad Ali’s robe, tennis star Billy Jean King’s uniform, baseball great Roberto Clemente’s jersey, boxer Joe Louis’s gloves, and skater Kristy Yamaguchi’s ice skates.

Billie Jean King’s uniform from the Battle of the Sexes tennis match, 1973 (1992.0122.01)

Some visitors talked about displays that they considered game changers. Lynn Vasquez, 52, of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, received inspiration from actress Constance Wu’s dress from the movie Crazy Rich Asians. Vasquez was born in South Korea and grew up “without a lot of Asian role models. I was delighted that the exhibit considered Asian-Americans in entertainment. As an Asian-American, I was elated,” she said.

Constance Wu’s designer gown from Crazy Rich Asians, 2018 (2019.0113.01)

Ram Vellanki, 26, from Princeton, New Jersey, was inspired by the Phoenix Suns “Los Suns” jersey used for the basketball team’s Latin Nights. “Entertainment provides messages,” he said.

Divya Viswanathan, 26, also of Princeton, responded to the performances of minority comedians in the exhibition’s “What’s So Funny” display, noting “how race was used in media for comedy, how it affected people. It was a unifying experience, you’re the punch line of a joke. Now people are recognizing that’s not okay.”

Seemingly every visitor who viewed Fred Rogers’ sweater and shoes recalled the message he calmly sent about being a good neighbor. Rebecca Turner, 29, of Orlando, took the message this way: “Love your neighborhood, and we’re different but we’re all the same.”

Several student-age visitors recalled the lessons they learned from Bill Nye, The Science Guy, after viewing his lab coat. Edison Boone, 12, of Ashburn, Virginia, spoke about hurricanes, volcanoes, and the weather cycle. Audrey Garner, 10, of Memphis, Tennessee, talked about light bulbs. For William Skrdla, 12, from Mechanicsville, Virginia, it was clouds and precipitation. But not all of Bill Nye’s fans were children. Lindsay Milligan, 31, of Boise, Idaho, said, “I watched [Nye’s show] from fifth through ninth grade. The science teachers would wheel in a TV. We learned electronics to dinosaurs and everything in between.”

lab coat and bow tie
Bill Nye’s shirt, bowtie, and lab coat, around 1990s (2016.0177.03)

Prince’s yellow guitar was attractive to young visitors, but it was especially inspiring to Heather Bakke, 50, a teacher from St. Peter, Minnesota, Prince’s home state. “He went to Minnesota public schools. He was a symbol of how public education does wonderful things for Minnesota. He was just very determined to do things his own way. People thought he was showing off, but he was just trying to be himself,” she said.

Prince’s “Yellow Cloud” guitar, 1983 (1993.0435.01)

The guitar also had a special meaning for Robin Vaughn, 70, of Richmond, Virginia, and her daughter. “I can remember when he brought out “1999” and said it would be someone’s graduation song,” she said. “My daughter graduated in 1999 from high school and I said, ‘This will be your song.’”

Planning a visit Entertainment Nation? You can search our collections to see what objects from the collection are currently on view in the exhibition.

Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist and volunteer at the museum. He previously has written about New York in the 1800s, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and visitors' reactions to the ruby slippers. One of this post’s surprises was learning how the ruby slippers, while still a visitor favorite, now share the spotlight with the droid costumes from Star Wars and objects from the history of children’s television.

Entertainment Nation is made possible in part by the generous leadership support of the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family, Tom and Karen Rutledge, The History Channel, Dr. Stephanie Bennett-Smith, American Cruise Lines, an anonymous friend, Linda and Mike Curb, Golden Globe Foundation, and Barry and Wendy Meyer.