Currently on view at the Oakland Museum of California is The 1968 Exhibit, which focuses on the culture of that unforgettable year. Organized by the Minnesota History Center, the Atlanta History Center, the Chicago History Museum, and the Oakland Museum, this expansive show explores the tumultuous year whose highlights include human space travel, the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the rise of the Black Panthers, the Beatles, and hippie culture, the first wide use of plastics, and many other things. All too often museums offer a narrow lens through which to look back on history, maybe in an attempt to simplify the overly complicated narratives. Thankfully the Oakland Museum of California ignored that method, willingly confusing our sense of history by collapsing many disparate subjects into one exhibition.
As the Democratic National Convention was met with riots in Chicago and across the country, 1968 marked the explosion of radical protest and the unique style of hippie culture, especially in San Francisco. The exhibition showcases the hippies’ colorful garb, as well as the average American family’s much more conservative aesthetic. Seen side by side, the pairing emphasizes the powerful disconnect between the hippie youth and the more conservative adults, although whether the hippies made a truly radical break remains ambiguous.
Founded in 1966 in Oakland by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party was a more radicalized section of the burgeoning protest movement focusing on African American rights and socialism. Although formed in California, Black Power was rapidly expanding to other states by 1968, much to the fear of many of those in power. Then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said the party was “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (whether or not that was because of their fearsome guns or their Free Breakfast Program is unclear). Their militant style of operation stood in stark contrast to the hippies.
Although the ’60s has become known as a decade of protest, The 1968 Exhibit reminds us that many people in the US were hardly leading radical lives. The show features an entire living room outfitted with furniture and decor of the time. I love picturing a flower child in full garb in her parents’ house trying to convince them of the importance of protesting the Vietnam War.
Indeed, 1968 was a year of great upheaval and change. It felt as though everything could change, and was changing rapidly — until much of that energy fragmented, dissipated, or disappeared entirely. Assassinations of major political figures, imprisonment or vilification of radicals, the perseverance of the failure that was the Vietnam War, and much more seemed to lead the way to a more destructive activism like that of the Weather Underground (begun in 1969), or to no movement at all.
The show reminded me of the powerful and haunting ending to Hunter S. Thompson’s famous book, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas:
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. … You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning …
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave …
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
That “high-water mark” was 1968, and this show captures its incredibly diverse and wild energy. Thinking of Thompson’s quote, I can’t help but wonder if the global upheaval of 2011, with the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, will be considered another high-water moment that then receded, or just a beginning.
The 1968 Exhibit continues at the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak Street, Oakland) until November 25.