The 1968 Exhibit: Oakland Museum Salutes History

Road Journals Blog—All I wanted was one clean shot of an image from the slideshow before me: the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine cover, the gritty black-and-white of soldiers slogging through a jungle in Vietnam, or the image of Earth as seen from Apollo 8. Yet the shot eluded me. No matter how fast I clicked, the image I wanted to capture was already melting into the next, and my resulting picture was nothing but chaos.

Robert F. Kennedy, The 1968 Exhibit, image

Robert F. Kennedy reaches out to a crowd of well-wishers. | Oakland Museum of California

Strangely enough, my artistic woes served as the perfect introduction to Oakland Museum of California’s The 1968 Exhibit. “You see,” the curator explained, during a press preview, “our goal in designing the exhibit was to try to replicate the relentless series of events” of that watershed year. From the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, to the riots in Chicago, to the Black Power protests in Oakland, 1968 shook America to its foundations.

Inside, a path through 12 displays led me, breathless, all the way from the Tet Offensive to the Apollo 8 landing, through the “whimsy and tragedy” of the year. Packed with artifacts—Goldie Hawn’s go-go boots from Laugh-In, the camera used to snap the final pictures of a dying Robert F. Kennedy, Janis Joplin’s psychedelic pants and hot pink boa—this historical exhibit gripped me from the minute I stepped inside.

patchwork pants, The 1968 Exhibit, Oakland Museum, image

Patchwork pants were de rigueur among the hip in 1968. | Oakland Museum of California

The journey begins in a delightfully kitschy living room drenched in hues of olive, yellow, and peach. But there’s something strange about this living room: across from the sofa sits a hulking Huey helicopter. I abandoned my comfortable perch on the couch and peered inside the Huey; before me, black-and-white war footage played against a soundtrack of thup-thup-thupping rotor blades. Looking down, I saw a draft card, dog tags, and a Zippo lighter that a soldier had engraved with a chilling message: “You only live twice. Once when you’re born, and once when you’ve looked Death in the face.”

I turned around only to find myself standing inside a college dorm room, learning about the anti-war movement and the sexual revolution. And so the exhibit continues, mirroring the ceaseless march of events in a year that an observer described as “just one damn thing after another.” Fortunately, there are well-placed “pop culture lounges,” where you can plop down in a beanbag chair and enjoy favorites scenes from Funny Girl and groove to the tunes of the Monkees. Better yet, the displays offer you a chance to become a true part of history, as you step inside an authentic voting booth (straight from Ramsey County, Minn.) to cast your ballot for your 1968 presidential candidate of choice, or use software to Photoshop your face onto an album cover.

Walking out of the exhibit, I noticed that the slideshow was still playing. Had I really wanted just one image? I thought. That just wouldn’t do justice to 1968.

The 1968 Exhibit runs through August 19, 2012.

What was your favorite museum exhibit?

This blog post was first published in May 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.


Loved the review also! I hope the exhibit goes on tour and comes to Las Vegas

Loved the review; can't wait to see the exhibit! Thanks to the Oakland Museum for putting this important year in perspective, and thanks to Via for letting us know about it in this colorful review