New Smithsonian wing shows how pop culture tells America’s history

The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
The National Museum of American History's "Entertainment Nation" exhibit showcases how entertainment plays a role in shaping the national conversation. (WTOP/John Domen)
(1/12)

A new exhibit inside the Smithsonian’s American History museum aims to show how pop culture tells the American story, and how the American story is seen in pop culture.

The exhibit, titled “Entertainment Nation,” has over 200 exhibits that span more than a century, from recognizable costumes from blockbuster movies, to legendary sports jerseys and memorabilia. You also have one of Prince’s iconic guitars, one of Mr. Rogers’ sweaters, and even Kermit the Frog and Elmo.

It’s impossible not to travel back in time to memorable experiences and events.



“Everyone will see at least some objects that will blow their minds,” said John Troutman, a music curator and director of the new wing. “It is from the forms of entertainment on the theater stage, on radio, television, film (and) in the sports arenas, where a lot of big conversations take place. They serve as arenas for discussion, not only about the best plays or the best music, but also about bigger conversations about society and politics and what it means to be American.”

While there’s a Michael Jordan jersey on display, there’s also a Jason Collins jersey from his stint with the Wizards. We later found out Collins wore the number 98 in honor of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998 because he was gay. Collins later came out as gay too, and was the first openly gay player to play in the NBA.

The museum’s director, Anthea Hartig, said the new wing uses “popular culture as a way … to get to some of those really complicated issues that surrounded us 150 years ago and today.”

Think about nostalgia as an invitation for learning,” she said. “Then the story that is told after that is really how entertainment in all of its forms have been a forum for national conversations about our democracy, about whose included, who gets to be American.”

Another curator involved in the creation of this new wing was Krystal Klingenberg, who grew up in the District.

“It’s a dream to be a part of this,” she admitted. “To see this kind of exhibit on the floor of entertainment history would have been absolutely thrilling,” to see as someone who grew up coming to these museums.

Because the exhibit is able to reveal how the politics of our nation revealed themselves in our popular culture, she said this is something that D.C. region residents in particular will be able to take to.

“One thing that’s fascinating about this exhibit is that connection between entertainment and politics is really clear,” said Klingenberg. “Looking at 150 years of entertainment history also allows us to look into the historical political moment of the last 150 years, and I think that folks from the area are really keen on these ideas and will really dig it.”

The opening of the new wing was celebrated with honors for musicians Dave Grohl, Susan Tedeschi, and Emilio and Gloria Estefan, who donated items to the exhibit and found it inspiring see so many voices from diverse cultures represented there.

“It is important to celebrate everyone that is a part of this amazing tapestry that is the United States,” said Gloria Estefan.

“I hope this is not about me and Gloria,” added Emilio. “This will inspire minorities. “God bless America. We’re blessed to live in a free country.”

To celebrate the new exhibit, there are a series of events taking place through the weekend, including special conversations and film screenings.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow WTOP on Twitter and Instagram to engage in conversation about this article and others.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2022 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up