In late January, I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. In December, a new exhibit featuring objects from television, movies, sports, music, and more opened at the museum. Entitled “Entertainment Nation,” the exhibit explores entertainment in the United States from the mid-1800s to the modern era. This exhibit will have items that rotate in and out over the next 20 years, and part of the exhibit right now is the iconic signpost from M*A*S*H. The signpost has not been displayed at the Smithsonian since the late 2000s, so to see it with other objects from entertainment history places it in greater context. In this week’s post, I am going to share my experience with the exhibit and seeing the M*A*S*H signpost for the first time.
I was invited to visit the exhibit and meet with an exhibit curator after I was featured in Smithsonian Magazine‘s article discussing the signpost and the 50th anniversary of M*A*S*H in September 2022. Once the exhibit opened, I knew I had to take them up on the offer. The exhibit is tucked in the corner of the third floor of the museum, and its bright lights and brightly colored floor grab your attention as you approach it. One of the first objects you see are Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. As you walk the yellow brick road, you pass several items currently on display including one of Prince’s guitars and Kermit the Frog. Then, in a center display case, the M*A*S*H signpost stands.
I really like how they signpost is displayed. It is in a glass case so you can take in the full 360° view. My first impression was that it is very tall! It is displayed on a platform, but it is tall even without the platform. The Smithsonian’s site lists the signpost as 97 inches tall, which puts it at just over eight feet. Then, you start to notice the details. The hand painted city names, the dirt on the sign, the uneven post the signed are nailed to, and the dirt on the metal base. As with all of the items from the “Binding Up the Wounds” exhibit in the mid-1980s, the M*A*S*H items were collected by the Smithsonian right after the series ended. So everything they have in their collection, and they have a lot of M*A*S*H objects in the full collection, was fresh from the set.
Back to the signpost, there is an exhibit sign with the signpost that includes a photo of the cast. The text of the sign explores how M*A*S*H followed the American public’s views about war, especially in the era of the Vietnam War. The sign begins, “A television sitcom set in a mobile army surgical hospital in 1950s Korea confronted the complexities of war.” But it is the next part that I think captures M*A*S*H so well, “Close to the trauma of the front lines but miles from home, the doctors and nurses on M*A*S*H mixed mayhem with medicine. The hit show’s dark humor spoke to audiences grappling with the futility of the Vietnam War. Even after the United States had withdrawn its troops, the show continued to inform debates about the toll of war: What cause was worth it?” M*A*S*H captured the American sentiment about current events of the 1970s even though the show took place in a war that took place 20 – 30 years earlier.
After reading that, the context of the signpost changes. Doctors and nurses at MASH units were far from home and performing surgery on bodies mutilated by war. They needed an escape. They needed hope. And for many that hope was the memory of home. The M*A*S*H signpost displays the hometowns of our favorite characters, but it also represented the loved ones and the life that they left behind to be in that awful place. That is truly what makes the signpost so iconic is that it represented the hope of those characters to eventually go home.
The back of the sign continues this theme with the simple quote, “M*A*S*H got us talking about war.” And it did. There were funny moments, there were serious moments, and there were tragic moments. That is life, and more importantly, that is life in war. M*A*S*H portrayed that reality better than most other television series or movies about war. The series wasn’t solely about heroics or comedy, it was about humanity. The human cost of war was something that the show runners never forgot. That is a lot for one prop from M*A*S*H to represent, but to me, the signpost represents the show perfectly.
“Entertainment Nation” has something for everyone. If you are a fan of sports, you can see Michael Jordan’s jersey, Muhammad Ali’s boxing robe, and Billie Jean King’s tennis dress. Music lovers will enjoy a guitar played by Prince, an outfit worn by Selena Quintanilla Pérez, and instruments played by the icons of Jazz. Television lovers will see Muppets, Dana Scully’s FBI badge from The X-Files, and a sweater worn by Mister Rogers. Movie aficionados will enjoy seeing C-3P0 and R2-D2 from Star Wars, Captain America’s shield, a Superman costume worn by George Reeves, and, of course, the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The list of objects on display goes on and on and includes items from the circus, vaudeville, and theater as well.
Another set of objects currently on display have a loose M*A*S*H connection. Archie and Edith Bunker’s chairs from the CBS series All in the Family are not far from the signpost. In its second season, M*A*S*H was moved to Saturday night between All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We know that M*A*S*H‘s ratings in its first season weren’t great, but the series jumped into the top 10 in its second season. Its new time slot certainly played a role in that ratings boost. All in the Family is another important series from the 1970s, so seeing props from the two shows displayed together, knowing that All in the Family and M*A*S*H aired the same night, is very fitting.
Getting to see the M*A*S*H signpost in person is an experience I will never forget! As a long time fan of the series, seeing anything that came from the set is going to be special, but seeing it displayed so well makes me very proud to be a M*A*S*H fan. The signpost is displayed along side some of the most iconic props, wardrobe, and objects from the history of entertainment in America, and M*A*S*H deserves a place in that spotlight. The exhibit is currently open to the public and the museum is free! Checkout the National Museum of American History‘s website for current hours and information about visiting. Next week’s post will review the exhibit catalog for “Entertainment Nation”, then in March, I will share some of the other M*A*S*H objects from the Smithsonian’s collection that I was able to see!
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