Spirit of ’68 lives on at Bowers Museum


The living room features an avocado-green couch and checkered wallpaper. The vintage television is showing a tape of President Nixon giving a speech. A soldier’s letter home from Vietnam, dated January 1968, sits on the coffee table.

To further dramatize the tensions of the time, when the U.S. was divided as the war raged in Southeast Asia, a real, restored Huey helicopter also sits in the room.

“The 1968 Exhibit,” which runs through Sept. 13 at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, showcases the iconic year that changed much of U.S. history.


“It’s a little bit of a different exhibition for us,” said Julie Perlin Lee, vice president of collections and exhibition development at the museum. “We don’t usually do history too often. Our mission is to show the world’s finest art and culture, so when we saw this exhibition, we thought it was a little outside what we normally do.

“When we really started to look at the year 1968 and everything that happened, we couldn’t say it wasn’t one of the most culturally significant periods of history ever.”

The exhibit has traveled around the country since it was first displayed at the Minnesota History Center in October 2011. Bowers will be its final stop.

The exhibit looks at 12 areas, each representing a different month of 1968. Major events like the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the hippie movement are showcased.

It also showcases cultural milestones like the feminist movement. Birth control pills, which were controversial at the time, sit in a drawer in a room that replicates a teenage girl’s bedroom.

Perlin Lee pointed out that birth control is still debated today.

“That’s another thing that’s amazing about this exhibit,” she said. “So many things were happening then that were issues, and they’re still issues today.”

The exhibit also features pop culture memorabilia, toys and clothing from the era.

One room showcases popular shows and movies, including “Planet of the Apes,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Perlin Lee said one of her favorite displays shows a vest and jacket actually worn by influential electric guitar player Jimi Hendrix.

“There’s a lot of heaviness and emotion to the exhibit,” she said. “Because of that, the exhibitors very smartly put in some more lighthearted stuff.”

The exhibit features hundreds of artifacts and props, including a replica of Apollo 8, which was launched on Dec. 21, 1968.

Guests can fully immerse themselves by using a real machine from the time period to cast their vote for president. Selections include Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace and other candidates.

The exhibit aims to provoke emotions and put visitors in the mind-set of the time.

“It’s supposed to be made to be a little bit personal so you can feel that anxiety and tension,” Perlin Lee said.

At the last area of the exhibit, labeled “December,” the fate of the soldier mentioned in January’s room is made known. The room is strikingly similar, with the avocado-green couch still in place, but with some of the furniture moved around to show a lapse in time.

Perlin Lee said the exhibit is touching for those who experienced 1968 and eye-opening to those who did not.

“We just want people to come and enjoy it,” she said. “We feel like a lot of people will come back and bring others. I think what will happen, just by its nature, is it will generate a lot of stories and remembering.

“It’s a great place for people to come and talk to one another. It takes a special exhibition to get people really talking.”

If You Go

What: “The 1968 Exhibit”

Where: Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, June 13 through Sept. 13

Cost: $10 to $15

Information: (714) 567-3600 or