In the novel, "Remembrance of Times Past, " Proust, the iconic 19th century French writer, diped a Madeline, a type of cookie, into a cup of tea to awaken his memories of the past.
'The 1968 exhibit,' the new show at the Oakland Museum of California devoted to that tumultuous year does not use anything as fragile as a cookie - you are sucker punched at the entrance with a Huey, the helicopter that was used in Vietnam.
A highlight of the exhibit, the UH-1H helicopter, or Huey, was assembled by more than 25 veterans for the Minnesota Historical Society, which organized the show. Painted Army green, its doors are emblazoned with red crosses, designating its use for medical evacuation.
The helicopter is set within a typical American living room of the period, compete with the ubiquitous green couch, shag rug, Danish modern furniture and TV set where an avuncular Walter Cronkite pontificates, "We are mired in stalemate."
This is made even more poignant by interviews with survivors projected inside the helicopter. Nearby. a flag draped coffin with wall text informs the visitor of the ever-increasing death toll.
The recorded interviews tell of the sense of comradeship and belonging in the face of danger. As one of the soldiers recounted, "War was everywhere, an imminent peril pressing on the soul." Some visitors to that portion of the exhibit openly wept, for Vietnam is still the great wound in the American psyche.
Vietnam had become, as Michael Arlen wrote in a wall panel, "The central fact of American life, the force that was changing shape beneath everything else in that period. "
Two other portions of the exhibit also pack a powerhouse of grief and regret - videos and memorabilia of the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Listening to snippets of their speeches is another painful reminder of what America lost in that fateful year.
The 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago is portrayed, where Cronkite famously lost his cool as the newsmen were assaulted on the floor of the convention, calling the floor security "thugs."
After that, the rest of the exhibit was anti-climatic. How do you follow those soul destroying, life changing events?
The silly, the fatuous, the vivid pop culture, Black Power, and Women's Lib are well represented. Remember beanbags, Star Trek, the movie '2001: A Space Odyssey?' They are all here along with piles of "everyday stuff," consumer goods, molded furniture, orange shag rugs, transistor radios and ice buckets, embroidered blue jeans, the classic Olivetti typewriter.
The end of the show is staged in the same living room that visitors entered at the beginning of the exhibit. This one contains a full sized-replica of the Apollo 8 Command module.
Television reports of the launch and mission unfold while the image of the "Earthrise" is displayed accompanied by an audio of the crew reading from the Book of Genesis.
There are three lounges in the galleries of art and history. There is one related to media so you can watch TV shows and movies, a design lounge and a music lounge with a trivia quiz. Guess what actor, still very active, recorded "Lucy in the sky with diamonds?"
There's also one section about the election with an interactive polling both.
A website, www.the1968exhibit.org, that is integrated into the exhibition experience, allows visitors to browse additional content and easily share their experiences with others by posting personal stories, observations, and photos of the year on the website.
The show is exhausting and chaotic, rather like 1968 was for those who lived through it. The year began in tragedy with the Tet Offensive, where the reality of the war broke upon America, and unfolded month-by-month, ending with the transitory optimism of Apollo 8.
The year 1968 was a turning point for a generation coming of age and a nation at war; and throughout it all, the Bay Area was at the forefront with an emerging California counterculture, marches and anti-war protests.
My recommendation is to have a cup of coffee in the light filled lunchroom, watch the koi lazily swimming in the pool below and go back through the exhibit again.
1968 was arguably one of the most important years in American history; with this exhibit, you don't have to have been there to be there.
On view March 31 through August 19, 2012, in the Oakland Museum of California's Great Hall, The 1968 Exhibit was developed by the Minnesota History Center, in partnership with the Atlanta History Center,
My flicker images of the exhibit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/49938734@N06/sets/72157629418505944/