MishM*A*S*H 18: Behind the Scenes at the Smithsonian

UPDATE (3/9/2023): I apologize because I made a mistake in saying that none of the names on the “M*A*S*H 4077” sign in the Officers’ Club were real. Thanks to Dan Harrison, nine of the names have been identified, and more details on the sign can be found in this new post!

In January, I went to Smithsonian National Museum of American History to see their new exhibit “Entertainment Nation.” The exhibit includes the famed signpost from M*A*S*H, and it did not disappoint (see my posts on the exhibit and the exhibit catalog). While I was there, one of the exhibit’s curators took me on a tour of the exhibit and gave me the backstory. I was surprised when he offered to take me into one of the Smithsonian’s storage rooms to see some of the other M*A*S*H items in their collection. I wasn’t going to turn down that opportunity, so I spent most of my time with the curator looking at M*A*S*H objects that I have seen on television for decades!

Before I discuss the objects, I want to take a moment to talk about why these objects are not currently on display. The Smithsonian has a very large collection and less than 1% of it is on display at any given time. While this may seem like a waste to some, the great thing about the Smithsonian is that none of the objects in its collections can ever be sold. They belong to the American people. Private museums will sell objects from time to time to raise funds, but the Smithsonian is funded by the government and private donations. This ensures that the M*A*S*H objects are going to be a part of the American public’s collection for as long as the Smithsonian exists. For more on what is in the Smithsonian’s collection from M*A*S*H, see my post on the “Binding up the Wounds” exhibit catalog from the 1980s.

While being part of the collection is nice, we would like to be able to see the objects, right? I completely agree, and the Smithsonian curator I spoke with agreed as well. He told me that he would love to see a M*A*S*H exhibit, and the Smithsonian lends out objects regularly for exhibits at other museums. There are a few issues though, and that’s where lending objects becomes tricky. Objects must be displayed and stored in certain ways. Some museums simply cannot comply with these standards. Humidity, lighting, temperature, display cases, and more all go into decision making as to whether or not to loan an object to another institution. There’s also the concern of insurance (which can be expensive), security, and shipping. Moving objects can be dangerous, especially if they are fragile.

Finally, some objects display better than others. The M*A*S*H signpost for example is on wood and likely was painted with standard household outdoor paint. It can tolerate lights and humidity better than a costume or something on paper. As you will see when I go through some of the M*A*S*H objects I got to see, some are in better shape than others. But overall, they are all in good condition because they are stored in a climate controlled room and in climate conditioned cabinets. So, that was a long explanation just to say that the reason the M*A*S*H objects have not been displayed in decades is very complicated. Some has to do with the objects not fitting into current exhibits, but most of it has to do with money. There is a great expense that comes with loaning objects and displaying them.

Let’s look at the objects! Each of the objects below were taken from the set after filming was completed in January 1983. There are more objects in the collection, but I only got to see a select few. Each object was photographed by me with permission, and I have also included a screenshot from an episode showing that object in the show.

Nurses’ Quarters Sign

We don’t see the outside of the Nurses Quarters often, but like the Swamp, Mess Tent, VIP Tent, and commanding officer’s tend, there was a sign on the tent. This sign was over the door of the nurse’s tent. It is plywood with painted detail. The screenshot is from the episode “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (05×03).

Officer’s Club Sign

This is one of my favorite objects from the M*A*S*H set! This sign is in the background of countless scenes in the Officer’s Club. I have often wondered what happened to this sign, and I was shocked when the curator pulled the cover off…and there it was. I was literally speechless. The sign is an old piece of plywood, and the detail is hand painted. Looking at the detail, the names written on it are meaningless. They were likely added by the art department for effect and nothing more. Nine of the names on the sign have been identified and more information is available in this post! Seeing this was one of the highlights of my day! The screenshot is from the episode “Your Hit Parade” (06×18).

Swamp Martini Glasses

The martini glasses from The Swamp. There really isn’t much else to say because they are iconic, along with the still. There are six glasses in total. At the edge of the image, you can see an unopened jar of olives that the Smithsonian also kept from The Swamp set. The screenshot is from the episode “Yankee Doodle Doctor” (01×06).

Klinger’s Mudhends Jersey

Being from Toledo, Klinger represented his hometown baseball team by wearing a Mudhens jersey and that at the 4077th. This is the jersey Jamie Farr wore. It is in really good condition for its age, and considering how often he wore it later in the series, it has held up very well. The screenshot is from the episode “Taking the Fifth” (09×09).

Klinger’s Ginger Rogers Dress and Head Piece

Farr wore several dresses that made Klinger iconic, but some dresses he wore were actually worn by famous actresses first (the Smithsonian has an article about this). This dress is a great example. Originally worn by Ginger Rogers, it was altered for Klinger’s Queen of Nile outfit. The headdress was made for Klinger, and that is part of the Smithsonian’s collection as well. The screenshot is from the episode “April Fools” (08×25).

Klinger’s Betty Grable Dress

Another dress that Klinger wore that was taken from the 20th Century Fox collection was this pink dress worn by Betty Grable. It was not altered as much as the Ginger Rogers dress, but it was still interesting to see M*A*S*H pulling Klinger’s dresses from the actual collection at Fox. The screenshot is from the episode “Major Ego” (07×08).

Margaret’s Shirt

This shirt was worn by Loretta Swit as Margaret. It is likely that they had multiple fatigue shirts that she wore throughout the eleven seasons. This would be one that she wore toward the end of the series. It is possible that this was Army surplus item at some point and could have been used in other productions (such as the MASH film) before it was used in M*A*S*H. The screenshot is from the episode “Father’s Day” (09×04).

Hawkeye’s Robe

The last two items are probably the best known…this is, of course, the robe worn by Alan Alda as Hawkeye. I believe that there are two different robes. In the early seasons, the pocket is in a different position. This would be from the later seasons. What I find most interesting about this is the color. On tv, it looks red. That is likely due to the color grading of the film they used, but it actually is more purple. In fact, I recall Hawkeye mentioning that his robe was purple for royalty at some point in the series. I always thought that line was odd because it looks red, but it is indeed more purple!

Hawkeye’s Hawaiian Shirt

Finally, the best for last, Hawkeye’s Hawaiian shirt. He wears this shirt in the opening scene of the pilot, and he wore it off and on for the next eleven years. It is possible that they had more than one of these shirts, but it’s also possible they used the same shirt for the entire series. What I want to point out with this shirt is the condition. Hawkeye’s shirt was one of the centerpieces in the 1980s exhibit, and you can tell. The shirt is faded in the center where the exhibit lights focused on it. This illustrates the point I made earlier about objects being displayed for only so long. The lights of today are better, but the deep blue dye of this shirt did not hold up well in the lighting. The screenshot is from the pilot episode (01×01).

As I look back over these photos, I cannot believe that I saw all of these iconic M*A*S*H objects and costumes in person. I am grateful for the opportunity to have done so. The Smithsonian curator was very generous with his time, and I greatly appreciate them allowing me to photograph the objects to share with the M*A*S*H community. Hopefully as “Entertainment Nation” continues for the next 20 years, some other objects from M*A*S*H can be displayed for the public to see. In the meantime, I am happy to know that they are safely and securely stored in a way that ensures future generations will be able to enjoy them as well.

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