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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

1968 exhibit starts out with a bang

The entrance to the 1968 exhibit at Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh plants visitors in a typical living room of the time with TV news about the Vietnam War playing on a TV near a helicopter used in that war. (History Center photo)

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – A recording of legendary journalist Walter Cronkite reporting about the Vietnam War in 1968 plays on an old television in a living room decorated with mid-century furniture just inside the entrance to a new museum exhibit visiting Pittsburgh.

A 20-foot Bell UH-1H Huey helicopter actually used in the war is parked nearby in “1968: The Year that Rocked America” at Sen. John Heinz History Center, serving as a shocking reminder that Vietnam played out in nearly every house in America at the time.

“The Huey helicopter is literally in the living room. It starts out with a bang,” said Brady M. Smith, a communications manager at the museum at 1212 Smallman St. in Pittsburgh.

Heinz History Center is hosting through May 12 the traveling 8,000-square-foot display created by the Minnesota Historical Society about the explosive year that saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, free love, the civil rights and women’s movements and quirky pop culture.

The 1960s remind people today of hippies, but that wasn’t the case because most men then were still wearing buzz cuts in a culture that outwardly seemed “still in the 1950s,” Smith said.

“The whole notion that so many terrible things happened at the same time as the counterculture was gaining momentum,” he said. “1968 was when the transition started to happen. It’s an interesting year when you consider it as a whole.”

Another television reporter of the era featured in the exhibit, Mike Wallace, offered a fitting description of the year when he said “1968 just cracked the universe open for me” while giving his oral history in 1983 at Columbia University.

Wallace was a graduate student in 1968 at the New York school and participated in anti-war and civil rights movements, which he called “profound forces that transcend that moment.”

The Vietnam War reached a violent milestone that January with the surprise North Vietnamese attack known as the Tet Offensive on what should have been a cease fire on the Asian country’s New Year celebration.

Among the displays are televisions that show clips of such popular television series of the time as “Dragnet,” “Family Affair” and “Star Trek.” There is one dedicated to the Nov. 1, 1968, debut of George Romero’s cult classic “Night of the Living Dead” at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh.

A poster advertises Virginia Slims cigarettes, marketing them to women
with the slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

The show would not be complete without Pittsburgh’s contribution of a life-size figure of a young Fred Rogers in the year that saw the national launch of his “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and the set he used in the show.

“That set is donated to the History Center now,” Smith said.

The exhibit ends on a positive note paying tribute to the Apollo 8 mission where astronaut William Anders in December 1968 sent back the world’s first Earthrise images from deep space while reading from the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Among the memorabilia on display are peace, love and happiness artifacts from a time when people wore their buzzes like badges of honor. (Scott Beveridge photo)

The exhibit, “1968: The Year that Rocked America,” runs through May 12, 2013. 

This article first appeared in the March/April issue of Living Washington County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter.

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