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The American History Museum’s Pop Culture Exhibit Opens This Week. Here’s a Look Inside.

"Entertainment Nation" features a costume from "The Handmaid's Tale" and Dorothy's ruby slippers.

The American History Museum’s Pop Culture Exhibit Opens This Week. Here’s a Look Inside.

A new exhibit at the American History Museum, “Entertainment Nation,” is opening on December 9 with pop culture artifacts such as Elisabeth Moss’ costume from The Handmaid’s Tale, Muhammad Ali’s robe, and Dorothy’s ruby slippers. The permanent display celebrates American entertainment over the last 150 years, encompassing film, television, music, sports, and theater. It is also the first long-term bilingual exhibit on the National Mall, with every caption and quote presented in English and Spanish. 

Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

Located in the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Hall of American Culture, the 7,200-square-foot exhibit features 200 objects, from Mister Rogers’ sweater to a dress donned by comedian Ali Wong. Artifacts are accompanied by flashing video, surround sound music, and bronze models visitors are invited to touch. Check out Prince’s “Yellow Cloud” guitar from Purple Rain in a display case, and then pluck a replica as you channel your inner rock star. 

Prince’s 1983 “Yellow Cloud” guitar.

The exhibit is mostly arranged in chronological order, beginning with a Buffalo Bill playset from 1884 and moving toward more recent items such as the suit Nipsey Hussle wore in his 2019 music video “Higher.” The final gallery reads, “1990 – .” Each year, curators will rotate out objects and add new artifacts as entertainment continues to change. 

Constance Wu’s dress from Crazy Rich Asians and Nipsey Hussle’s blue suit from “Higher.”

“We recognized that it might be more powerful for visitors to encounter the interaction of those modes of entertainment within their historical moment,” says curator John Troutman. “Clusters of objects group around big conversations of their period, about belonging, inclusion and exclusion, war and peace, migration, identity and so forth.” 

Elisabeth Moss’ The Handmaid’s Tale costume.

Three micro-galleries filled with media artifacts delve into comedy, music, and television. The comedy display, called “What’s So Funny?” plays clips from American movies and shows, intermixed with comedians providing social commentary. It’s more than just a laugh, Troutman explains: The gallery explores “the long history of comedians of color using their stage in the most creative, hilarious, and potent ways possible—through the takedowns of comedy—to push back against the ethnic and racial stereotypes that have long been trafficked in the entertainment industry.” 

Mister Rogers’ sweater and shoes.

The massive exhibit uses technology to create an immersive experience. Clips from movies, plays, musicals, and shows flash across floor-to-ceiling screens, providing quick glimpses of notable characters and scenes. Don’t forget to look up: Some screens are even affixed to the ceiling.

Muhammad Ali’s robe.

Technology is the subject, too, in a section about new innovations and their role in broadening audiences. That display starts with a 1905 route card distributed on railroads to advertise Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show and ends with a cracked 2012 iPhone that singer Steve Lacy used to record himself playing guitar as a teenager. 

Entertainment Nation exhibit.

There are accessible features like assistive listening in two of the micro-galleries, as well as QR codes with visual descriptions in both English and Spanish.

The opening of the Culture Wing will also coincide with a 10-day family festival from December 9 through December 18. Events include conversations with curators, screenings of pop culture classics, and musical performances.

Katie Kenny
Editorial Fellow