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Experience 1968 at new exhibit in St. Paul

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 47) -

There’s a new exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul letting people relive the year 1968.

The 1968 exhibit opened to the public on December 23, 2017 and will remain at the museum until January 2019.

“We always wanted to do an exhibit about a single year,” said exhibit curator Brian Horrigan. “What would you pick in all of U.S. history to be a single exhibit? What year seemed to be crowded with incidents and upheaval turning points?” He said it was pretty obvious that 1968 was their choice.

The exhibit debuted in Minnesota back in 2011.  Since then the exhibit has been in cities across the nation: Chicago, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Austin, to name a few. Horrigan wanted to bring the exhibit back to Minnesota for the 50th anniversary of the year 1968.

“1968” is split into twelve sections, each representing one month of the year. Starting in January, visitors will walk into a decked out 1960's living room with a real Huey helicopter in the middle of the room. The Vietnam War was at its height in 1968 and felt like the central fact in American life.

“People referred to it [Vietnam] as the living room war, because it was a war that came into American living rooms every night on television,” said Horrigan. The war was unprecedented in that never before had Americans had a chance to see the war up close, but thanks to television they were able to see firsthand what was taking place across the Pacific.

The Huey helicopter, arguably the focal point of the exhibit, was acquired from a used helicopter location. It was restored, but Horrigan said they had to figure out a way to take it apart and piece it together again so it could be moved to other museums. They eventually figured out to do that, and with the help of a dozen or so war veterans, the helicopter was installed in the history center within 12 hours.

No matter where you are in the exhibit, you can hear the helicopter rotor. Horrigan said it’s to symbolize that war had an impact on the whole year.

The Vietnam War was one of the biggest events in 1968 due to the number of soldiers who lost their lives. Another prominent event was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4.

Horrigan and his team were able to acquire Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, the one he made the day before he was murdered.

“We reproduce part of the speech. [It was] completely spontaneous and one of the greatest speeches he ever made,” Horrigan said while watching the speech play out in the ‘April’ section of the exhibit.

Another prominent figure killed in 1968 was Bobby Kennedy. The exhibit has the actual camera that took the picture of Kennedy the moment after he’d been shot among other artifacts.

There’s also a montage of high-definition photographs taken from the train that carried Kennedy’s body from New York to Washington. Photographers captured everyday Americans saluting, holding signs, and waving the American flag as they headed to Kennedy’s final resting place.

But 1968 wasn’t all doom and gloom: television helped distract people from the daily tumult.

In two corners of the exhibit are sections dedicated to the music, television shows, and films from 1968. The media section has about six different screens with shows like Get Smart, A Family Affair, and Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood. A bigger screen TV shows famous films from the year, including The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde.

One special artifact the exhibit was able to acquire was one of Mr. Rodger’s hundreds of famous sweaters from his television show, which debuted in 1968 and ran until 2001.

 The music section allows visitors to participate in an interactive game show like quiz. Four people at a time have the opportunity to answer dozens of multiple choice questions to see who has the best musical knowledge of ’68 music.

Women also made an impact in September 1968 during the second wave of feminism, when feminists gathered at the Atlantic City boardwalk in New Jersey. The ‘September’ portion features a “freedom trash can,” which women used to throw away items that objectified the female body and symbolized women’s oppression. What items would those be? “Girdles, bras, painful hair curlers, high heels, and Playboy Magazine,” said Horrigan.

A year of trouble and turbulence came to an end in December when three astronauts successfully orbited the moon in Apollo 8. This was the first-time people were able to see the “dark side of the moon.”

The ‘December’ section ends the same way the exhibit starts: in a living room, except this time an Apollo 8 capsule takes the place of a Huey helicopter. However, unlike the Huey, the capsule is a replica of the one used in 1968. A television screen next to the capsule shows Walter Cronkite reporting on the Apollo’s success and how it ended the year on a high note, despite the horrendous events that took place months earlier.

“It's a memory trip for people like me,” said Horrigan. He turned 18 in 1968 and remembers all that happened. But those who weren’t born before ’68 still feel a connection to the exhibit. 

“They look at stuff  and see reflections in their own lives today. They hear echoes of racial violence and women's liberation and gun violence. People can see these echoes in their own lives today in everything that happened in this tumultuous year."

No matter your age, Horrigan said there’s something for everyone at the exhibit. Older generations can reflect on that year, while younger ones get a glimpse of what life was really like 50 years ago.

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