Heinz History Center looks at 1968, a pivotal year in history

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Charles Dickens had the right idea, but a different year.

It was the best of times and the worst of times. But it was 1968, and not the time of the French Revolution.

It was the time of hawks and doves. It was the time of sit-ins and “Laugh-In.” It was the time of heroes standing tall in protest and falling in assassination. It was the time of “Revolution” in music and riots in streets.

It also is the time of “1968: The Year That Rocked America,” a display that opens Saturday at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

“1968 was a watershed year in American history,” says Andy Masich, CEO and president of the history center. “Nine of every 10 Americans (who were alive then) can probably tell you exactly what they were doing at any given point in 1968.”

Throughout its time here, the display will feature special events, such as a screening of “Night of the Living Dead,” shot in this area that year, concerts featuring the music of '68 stars such as Jimi Hendrix, and a look at styles and trends like bell bottoms and bean-bag chairs.

It will have more than 100 artifacts and 10 video presentations.

The 7,000-square-foot exhibit looks at the year with the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, but was brightened by a glorious view of the Earth taken as Apollo 8 circled the moon.

The hit songs were “Hey Jude,” “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “MacArthur Park.” “Funny Girl” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” were in theaters, and the Smothers Brothers were on TV.

It was a year when protests got more embittered and led to the development of radical groups such as the Students for Democratic Society, the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers.

Dan Spock is director of the Minnesota History Center Museum, where the exhibit was put together. He says the year's role as a “turning point” in American history was seen as early as January 1969 when Life magazine took a step back to look at what it headlined as “The Incredible Year.”

He and his staff took 3 12 years to put together the display that also was helped by history societies in Atlanta, Chicago and Oakland, Calif.

Spock and Emily Ruby, an assistant curator at the Heinz History Center, agree 1968 was the year when many percolating themes came to a boil.

Ruby says the Vietnam War, which had been unpopular since earlier in the '60s, developed a wider range of protesters after CBS's Walter Cronkite reported the United States was “mired in a stalemate” in February of that year. Cronkite was reporting on the Viet Cong's Tet Offensive, one of the reasons that year became the war's bloodiest for Americans.

Masich says the killings of King and Kennedy and the Vietnam stalemate created “a sense of helplessness” that spawned a growing activism and a feeling of “let's take charge.”

Ruby says the baby boomers of that era had a great deal to do with the protest mentality.

“They were going to college and getting radicalized by teachers who were advocates for change,” she says.

“The Year that Rocked America,” like many displays, is built around themes, she says. But there are so many of them, that the exhibit is set up on a month-by-month basis.

The first stop in the exhibit is a living room with a TV report of January's Tet Offensive. That room will include a Bell UH-1 Iroquois , or “Huey,” helicopter, symbolizing how television was bringing the war into people's homes.

Visitors then will walk through displays about the year, stopping at such months as April, when King was killed; June, when Kennedy was shot; August, when the Democratic National Convention erupted into street violence; and November, when Richard M. Nixon was elected president.

The walk-through year ends with another living room, this one featuring a space capsule and broadcast of the “Earth-rise” from Apollo 8, which Spock says was the most-watched TV event ever to that point.

Ruby says the Heinz History Center has added a Pittsburgh element to the display: the set of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” the children's TV show that was produced here and began broadcasting that year.

Near that set, Ruby says, will be a Pittsburgh timeline, showing events such as riots after King's assassination, protests in public schools and the local chapter of the National Organization for Women becoming one of the nation's most active.

Besides the month-by-month stops, she says, the exhibit has three cultural sites, examining music, TV and film, and lifestyle and fashion.

Even though many of the headlines of that year were written about the protesters and members of the counter-culture, Masich says 1968 also was the year when the Silent Majority got noisier with its “America: Love it or leave it” message. The election of Nixon shows its ultimate strength, he says.

“The New Deal of the Democrats was coming to an end, and 1968 changed politics for 40 years,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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