What made “The Sixties” so extraordinary comes alive in “The 1968 Exhibit,” a multifaceted, multimedia show chronicling a year in which contradictions in American life came to dramatic crescendos.
Society, politics, war, the arts and pop culture get equal play in the vivid, 7,000-square-foot exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California — appropriately, a “museum of the people” which opened in 1969 — including hundreds of artifacts, some serious, some fun, some both.
Arranged chronologically by month, the show opens with a punch with January’s “Living Room War.” Furniture of the era, including a console TV showing Walter Cronkite’s news footage from the Vietnam war, sits next to an impressively reassembled Huey helicopter, an aircraft that became the symbol of the controversial conflict.
Inside the helicopter, a video display features both American and Vietnamese soldiers and medics sharing short, moving memories about their experiences; award-winning novelist Tim O’Brien, known for his books about the Vietnam war, is among them.
Between heavy images of war, dissent and death —the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. (April) and Robert F. Kennedy (June) and their effects are fully covered in photographs, text and audio — are lounges with beanbag chairs.
Visitors will enjoy TV and movie clips of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” (the show’s Flying Fickle Finger of Fate statue is on view), “Gunsmoke,” “The Monkees,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and highlights from the 1968 Olympic Games, World Series and Super Bowl.
Politics rule July, which focuses on rising conservatism and presidential campaigns by George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. August covers the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which was besieged by protesters.
A Chicago police officer’s riot helmet is on display; Dan Spock of the Minnesota History Center — which organized the traveling exhibit with the Atlanta History Center, Chicago History Museum and Oakland Museum — said the headgear was among the more difficult objects to secure. Other items were picked up on eBay.
The women’s movement is explored in September, when feminists protested at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City and filled a trash can — on view — with “instruments of torture” including electric hair curlers, high-heeled shoes and bras.
October covers human rights, particularly the “black power” salute by 200-meter sprint medalists Tommy “Jet” Smith and John Carlos during Olympic ceremonies in Mexico City.
A voting booth of the era is on view in November, as are Nixon political buttons (items from losing presidential competitor Hubert Humphries’ campaign are on view in the June section of the show).
A full-size replica of the Apollo 8 launch module, set in another period living room, closes out the show with December.
All-important pop music is covered in a lounge with record albums, an interactive quiz and a computer art project. Visitors may create a groovy album cover and photograph themselves as the featured artist.
IF YOU GO
The 1968 Exhibit
Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays; closes Aug. 19
Admission: $12 general; $9 seniors and students; $6 ages 9 to 17; free for children 8 and under
Contact: (510) 318-8453, www.museumca.org
Note: Final Friday programs, featuring half-price admission, hours until 9 p.m. and special activities, begin this week.