‘The 1968 Exhibit’ at Chicago History Museum looks at ‘the fabric of American life’

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Among the many insightful and just plain cool displays in “The 1968 Exhibit” that opens Saturday, Oct. 4 at the Chicago History Museum is one that offers details of a decades-old controversy dubbed the “LeClair Affair.” Here it is in a nutshell, as described on a small white placard:

Linda LeClair, a sophomore at Barnard College in New York City [then a separate women’s institution affiliated with Columbia University] was disciplined by school authorities for living off-campus with her boyfriend after the arrangement — as such co-habitations came to be called — was revealed in a New York Times article in March 1968. The story was picked up by the national media, and suddenly everyone knew about the ‘LeClair Affair.’ Young, unmarried women were becoming sexually liberated, thanks in part to the pill — oral contraceptives — which had gone on the market in 1960.

The LeClair Affair is emblematic of this whole month-by-month exhibit, which links together numerous seminal events in American history that all occurred in 1968. There are portions devoted to Vietnam, where that year the months-long Battle of Khe Sanh proved to be the deadliest of the entire war; to Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated in early April on his motel room balcony in Memphis; to Robert F. Kennedy, who met the same fate in Los Angeles a couple of months later. There also are scale replicas of a Huey helicopter (used for drop and rescue missions in Vietnam) and the Apollo 8 space capsule. In late December 1968, Apollo became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon and return home safely with its crew of three as well as stunning photographs of the planet as humans had never seen it.

The most Chicago-centric part (each city in which the exhibit runs chips in a bit of its local history, and the project is done in partnership with museums in Minnesota, Atlanta and Oakland) is a section about the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention, where protesters outside were roughed-up by Richard J. Daley’s overzealous cops while CBS newsman Dan Rather got manhandled by security guards on the convention floor. A wooden police baton, riot helmet and tear-gas holster from the era serve as key visuals.

“I think it became really clear to people that violence was pretty much part and parcel of the way things were done,” the exhibit’s curator, Joy Bivins, said of 1968 in particular and the late ’60s in general. “You have this very violent war, which people are starting to access through television in a way that they had not. Americans didn’t really know war in that way prior to the ’60s. [There were] these deaths and Dr. King’s death, and you saw the images of Robert Kennedy on television, so it seemed like everything was coming undone.”

There are lighter elements, too: scuffed brown boots, a velvet jacket and fringed vest worn by Jimi Hendrix; Mister Rogers’ iconic blue canvas sneakers and ugly green cardigan sweater; a recreation of 1960s middle class life.

“Really, what this exhibition is about is not just to highlight the bad things or the controversial things,” Bivins says, “but really to look at the fabric of American life in 1968 during a moment when so many things that happened earlier in the decade were coming to a head.”

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