Smithsonian exhibit enshrines (for a time) post-war childhood


November 02, 1990|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington

Here we are at the family room.

There's a turquoise vinyl couch, fake wood paneled walls, a large black-and-white television set, a hula hoop in the corner, an Easy-Bake oven on the coffee table, "The Game of Life -- A Family Game" spread out on the floor.

But the scene, although part of a new exhibit at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, is too familiar to be history.

For baby-boomed America, this is our life. This was our childhood. And these are our memories.

Captain Kangaroo and civil defense drills. "Mystery Date" and Dr. Spock. Barbie and Bullwinkle and Boy Scouts and Beany. Dick and Jane and "Peanuts."

The exhibit, "This is Your Childhood Charlie Brown: Children and American Culture, 1945-1968," looks at life during the Cold War -- a time when the soaring birth rate produced a "child-centered culture" -- and the myths and realities of that time.

Museum director Roger G. Kennedy sees that postwar era as the sort of collective childhood of today's generation.

"We have periodic childhoods in this country, periods in which the world seems fresh and new, when you can make a decent life -- especially if you pick up and move away from the folks -- and in which it's possible that there are people that you can believe. The '60s and '70s brought an end to that."

In noting the huge consumer appetite and vast migration to the suburbs that marked that era, curator Charles McGovern says he particularly looked at the ways in which American parents sought to "wall off their children from the very problems that were bedeviling them -- communism, nuclear threat, the fear of ++ any form of social deviance."

But, he adds, no matter how great the "cultural insistence" on happiness and prosperity -- no matter how many washing machines, cars and TVs our parents bought, how large our single family home, how many GI Joe's we amassed -- those tensions and pressures were still conveyed to children.

"The civil defense issue specifically is the one thing that former XTC schoolchildren from this period remember -- and remember being scared by," says Mr. McGovern.

The exhibit, which runs through April and is sponsored in part by United Media, syndicator of the "Peanuts" comic strip which is used as a reflection of the era, ends with a look at childhood today. With references to drugs, homelessness, AIDS and child abuse, it is a sobering ending.

The children of the Cold War era, now parents themselves, "no longer seem to have the same attitude that their parents projected of being able to control and manipulate the world," says Mr. McGovern. "Yet the problems that their own kids are facing are much more severe. If childhood itself in our culture is dependent on parents' ability to give children a protected and safe and secure environment, then childhood in our own society is, in many ways, at risk."

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