From the M*A*S*H Library 17: “Entertainment Nation”

What is it?

Cohen, Kenneth and John W. Troutman, eds. Entertainment Nation: How Music, Television, Film, Sports, and Theater Shaped the United States. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2022.

Why should M*A*S*H fans care?

The Smithsonian is currently displaying (2023) the M*A*S*H signpost, and the exhibit catalog features the signpost and discusses M*A*S*H in its introduction.

As a M*A*S*H fan, what part(s) should I read?

M*A*S*H is discussed in the introduction of the book (pages 10 – 19) and the signpost is featured on page 141. There is also a photo of the signpost on page 118. The rest of the book features the other objects in the exhibit and Smithsonian’s collection.

TL;DR Review

If you venture to the Smithsonian to see the “Entertainment Nation” exhibit and the signpost, then I highly recommend picking up this book as it will be a great souvenir with the object details and great photographs. Otherwise, there are only a few pages of M*A*S*H content, so it may not be a “must own” for every M*A*S*H fan. If you are a completionist like me, then you will probably buy it anyway!

Full Review

In last week’s post, I reviewed the new Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit “Entertainment Nation.” The exhibit currently features the M*A*S*H signpost among other items from the history of sports, music, television, movies, theatre, and more. While I was there, I picked up the exhibit catalog which is titled Entertainment Nation: How Music, Television, Film, Sports, and Theater Shaped the United States. The book not only includes items currently on display in the exhibit, it also features objects in the museum’s collection that either cannot be displayed or will be displayed as the exhibit rotates items in and out. Each object has a story tell, and the book goes much further in depth than the signage in the exhibit can.

The book opens with a forward by basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a note from the director of the museum, and an introduction by two the museum’s curators. The catalog then dives right into the objects in the exhibit and the stories associated with each. The objects are grouped by category and not be genre, which I really like. Instead of having a chapter of all the times from television, music, sports, movies, etc., the catalog groups the objects by theme. So you get a mix of objects and context for the time in which the objects were created or used.

You truly never know what is going to be on the next page as you flip through this book. In fact, when I was at the museum, the employee in the store was reading the book for the first time! The photographs are in full color and are very well done. The Smithsonian uses professional photographers to catalog their collection, and it shows in this book. The objects are presented very well, and context is added. For example, the photo of Prince’s guitar in the catalog is accompanied by a photo Prince playing the guitar on stage. This places the object in both time and place. Each item is accompanied by a description as well. There is so much to learn from this exhibit!

Of course, the M*A*S*H signpost is given a prominent spotlight, and is actually featured twice! It is first featured on the section divider for the “Comedy and Tragedy ” portion of the book. This is the section in which M*A*S*H is discussed, and the signpost is highlighted along with a photo of the later seasons’ cast with the signpost. The caption for the signpost says, “This signpost referenced the hometown of the characters on the 1970s sitcom M*A*S*H. Based on a film of the same name, the show was set during the Korean War and followed the comedic antics of the staff at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH. Through its 1950s lens, the popular program used humor to address the horrors of war and leveled criticisms about the Vietnam War, hoping the nation ‘bind up the wounds’ from that conflict over the course of its eleven-year run.”

I find this description very accurate for the series for the most part. M*A*S*H was a reflection of public sentiment toward the Vietnam War at the time, but the series was more than the average sitcom. M*A*S*H was great at highlighting the human element in war. It wasn’t always funny, and I believe that is why the series was so successful. It didn’t trivialize war, and in some episodes, showed the horrors of war first hand. That’s a lot to explain in a short paragraph in an exhibit catalog, however! I also really like the clever usage of the “bind up the wounds” wording which references the 1980s Smithsonian M*A*S*H exhibit of the same name.

M*A*S*H is in great company in this book, in fact, the page before the sign post features a photo of a costume worn by Carol Burnett and the next page after the signpost has a story about the costume worn by Buddy Ebsen in The Beverly Hillbillies. Of course, this catalog features more than just television in its 270 pages. Objects and stories from all forms of entertainment are included. It is a great way to learn about the entrainment history in the United States as I doubt there are many books that feature such a wide cross section of entertainment available to the American public.

If you are a completionist like me, then you will buy this book for M*A*S*H library whether you go to the Smithsonian to see the exhibit or not. I would not call this book a “must own” for fans of the series, but if you venture to Washington, DC to see the exhibit, then I recommend picking this book up a souvenir of your visit. The book goes into detail for the items that are on display and many that are not currently on display, but will likely be rotated in and out as “Entertainment Nation” continues over the next 20 years or so. The excellent photography is another reason to get this book, especially if you find several objects in the exhibit of interest. The book is currently available from the Smithsonian Store for $34.95.

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