National Museum of American History Travels Back to the ’60s

Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Opening to the Public in 1964
April 25, 2014
Mustang on view at the museum

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History celebrates the 50th anniversary of its opening to the public by showcasing a Ford Mustang made in 1964 and taking a look at the early 1960s from the aspects of culture, technology and science in two exhibition cases. Beginning April 25, the displays will be surrounded by newspaper headlines that will appear as floor graphics and set the stage for transporting visitors back to the year in which civil rights legislation passed, American casualties in Vietnam rose, the Beatles arrived and IBM announced its System 360, a mainframe computer-system family.

When the museum opened its doors to the public Jan. 23, 1964, as the Museum of History and Technology, its Flag Hall with the Star-Spangled Banner and the First Ladies Hall were among the first 10 original galleries on view. The flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the lyrics to what would become the U.S. national anthem remains at the center of what is now the National Museum of American History, and the First Ladies exhibition continues to be among the most popular with the museum’s 5 million annual visitors.

 “The early 1960s found Americans caught between the optimism of a future where humankind could reach the moon and the pessimism brought about by President Kennedy’s assassination,” said John Gray, director of the museum. “Much like today, technological advances were changing American culture and life in complex ways. We help our visitors understand the complexities of the past; by learning about our rich history, we can be better prepared to move forward despite the difficulties or uncertainties the future may bring.”

Anchoring the two displays is a silver-blue 1965 Ford Mustang donated to the museum in 2004 by Eleanor McMillan, a former Smithsonian employee. The first Mustang was revealed to the public by Henry Ford II at the World’s Fair in New York April 17, 1964, and the museum’s display incorporates a diorama featuring an aerial view of that fair. The Mustang was a success after its debut and was marketed to young drivers, sports car enthusiasts and multicar families.

A child’s “Midget Mustang” pedal car can be seen in “The “Early Sixties: American Culture” display that delves into this time with a look at the some of the objects, books, music and imagery that spoke to both a desire for and a resistance to change. The call for individuality in areas of the arts, economics, politics and environmental and civil rights issues is reflected in a program from the March on Washington, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, a Dr. Strangelove film poster, a 1964 Bill Cosby record album and a ticket stub from The Beatles first American concert.

When the museum opened, many Americans were fascinated with outer space, feared the possibility of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union and began to embrace technology that is taken for granted today. In “The Early Sixties: American Science,” the museum showcases some of the innovations of the early ’60s, including computers, calculators, lasers and medical devices that changed the course of America and the world. Among the featured objects are an artificial heart valve and a heart-bypass assist device, both from the mid ’60s. Also included is part of a protein synthesizer, developed by Bruce Merrifield, which automated the process of making short-chain proteins, a method that earned him a Nobel Prize.

Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. The museum helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. It is currently renovating its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on business, democracy and culture. For more information, visit The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily (closed Dec. 25) from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with extended hours until 7:30 p.m. on selected weekends and official daily extended hours begin May 23 through Sept. 1. Admission is free.