Collecting Popular Culture

Posted on Wed, May 18, 2011

From April 20 to April 23, curators from the Aeronautics Division and the Space History Division attended the 2011 National Conference of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) in San Antonio, Texas. Tom Crouch of the Aeronautics Division organized a session on museum collecting and collectors titled “Collecting the Popular Culture of Flight at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum,” and the participants presented papers on collections that we curate. Tom spoke about the Balloonomania Collection of balloon-related furniture and furnishings; Alex Spencer of the Aeronautics Division talked about the Mother Tusch Collection, which contains many significant personal artifacts of military aviation; Margaret Weitekamp of the Space History Division discussed the O’Harro Collection of space memorabilia and popular culture; and I talked about the Stanley King Collection of Lindbergh memorabilia and popular culture.

An early 19th century ceramic plate commemorates an 1804 balloon launch from a Paris garden. The plate is part of the Balloonamania collection of popular culture artifacts displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.


This PCA/ACA meeting was one of the largest academic conferences I had ever attended, and a far cry from the small, homey gatherings of the organization I went to in the mid to late 1980s in Charleston and St. Louis. The 2011 meeting sessions usually began at 8:00 am and went on until very late in the evening every day, occupied conference rooms in two major San Antonio hotels, and covered a wealth of areas from “Adaptation (Film, TV, Literature & Electronic Gaming)” to “World War I & II.” In between were panels on such things as “Fat Studies,” “Grateful Dead,” the “Vampire in Literature,” and the perhaps more prosaic “Visual Arts in the West.” Our session fell into the “Collecting and Collectibles” area.

PCA began in the early 1970s as a reaction to what was perceived to be the elitism of the American Studies Association in favor of traditional American literature, and its disregard for new forms of expression such as material culture, popular music, movies, and comics. In 1979, the PCA began to partner with the American Culture Association and sponsored the first PCA/ACA Conference at Michigan State University. A number of people were involved in the formation of PCA/ACA, but Professors Ray Browne of Bowling Green State University and Russell Nye of Michigan State were the primary movers and shakers for the idea that popular culture deserved academic recognition as a topic of study. The PCA/ACA now has seven regional organizations, and is affiliated with four international popular culture organizations in Australia/New Zealand, East Asia, Canada, and Europe. Both organizations publish journals: The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of American Culture.

In museum circles, popular culture suffered the same fate as it did in academia. It was caught up in the “high culture” versus “low culture” debate, originated by literary critic Dwight Macdonald and others, in which high culture—classical art and literature, classical music, ballet, theater, etc.—was thought to be more worth considering than low culture—popular literature, movies, popular music, comics, etc. At the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology (the predecessor of the Museum of American History), the story is told of how many curators were not in favor of collecting American political memorabilia because they considered it “junk.” I dare say this was true in other Smithsonian museums, including the National Air and Space Museum. Ironically, the Museum had been collecting “popular culture” for years, but calling it something else. In 1974, for example, the Museum accepted a donation from Paramount Pictures of the original Starship Enterprise model from the television program Star Trek. In the 1990s, the Museum did two major popular culture exhibitions, Star Trek (1992), and Star Wars: The Magic of Myth (1997), which were immensely well-liked and full of intellectual content, but looked on somewhat disapprovingly in some quarters of the Museum. But just as academic fashion changes over time, so did museum consideration of popular culture as a worthy topic of collecting, research, and exhibition. Now Margaret Weitekamp holds a curatorial title that indicates she is responsible for collecting social and cultural artifacts; i.e., popular culture.


<p>This 3.4 meter (11-foot) model of the fictional starship <em>Enterprise</em> was used to film the weekly hour-long <em>Star Trek</em> television show.</p>


Although even the PCA/ACA disputes the definition of the term, preferring to create subject areas of academic interest, I do think there is some agreement that popular culture is influenced by industries that disseminate cultural material, for example, the film, television, and publishing industries, as well as the news media. It could even be described as not merely a cumulative product of those industries, but the result of a continuing interaction between them and the people of the society that consume the products. Popular culture is also a way to approach American consumer culture; i.e., the culture that surrounds American commerce, esp. advertising, marketing, merchandising, and the media, and its influence on American society. But even such definitions do not go far enough in my estimation.

However one wants to define it, there are a number of ways to rationalize collecting popular culture in a museum. In the case of the Stanley King Collection, the objects are a way of understanding the consumer tastes of Americans and to making sense of the idea of celebrity. The King Collection also tells us how dominant cultural images like aviation and personalities like Charles A. Lindbergh were used to sell all manner of goods. Lindbergh endorsed very few products, and those were related directly to aviation. Either he didn’t know or didn’t care that someone was making money from his celebrity. In our era, however, celebrities tend to keep a tight rein on their images or “brand,” and infringement is likely to prompt a lawsuit. Nevertheless, a good deal of popular culture merchandise that is unlicensed and unauthorized manages to find its way to the market place.


A collection of objects from the Stanley King Collection.


The O’Harro Collection is somewhat different from the King Collection, even though it too consists of commercially-produced materials. Jules Verne’s De La Terra á la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon) is said to have stirred visionaries of modern rocketry like Tsiolkovski, Oberth, and Goddard. Similarly, space science fiction heroes of the 1930s, represented in the O’Harro Collection by Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, stimulated American youth, and provided a glimpse at how space travel was imagined in the days before we had the technology to explore the Moon and distant planets. For a later era, the popular culture of the Star Trek television series (1966 to 1969) and the Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983) indicates that space science fiction capitalized on the public interest in space travel prompted by the advent of the U.S. space program and the 1969 landing on the Moon.


Four toy ray guns from the Museum's space popular culture collection illustrate how varied the colors, shapes, and designs of imagined space toys can be. From top left, clockwise, Laser Gun Toy, Taiwan, c. 1970s–1980s; “Space Super Jet” Toy Gun, Japan, c. 1960s–1970s; XZ-44 Liquid Helium Toy Water Pistol, USA, 1936; and Flash Gordon Arresting Ray Pistol Toy, USA, 1952.  <br />


The Balloonomania Collection and the Mother Tusch Collection are rather different from the consumer-oriented popular culture of the King and O’Harro collections. The Balloonomania Collection of 18th century furniture and furnishings was in a sense both a popular and preindustrial commercial response to the advent of balloon flight, and the first glimpse of the Earth from above the planet. The Mother Tusch Collection represents the personal crusade of a woman who thought of herself as a mother image to hundreds of military aviators during and after World War I, and of the pilots’ response in giving her personal items in gratitude for her many kindnesses.


<p class="MsoNormal">Mary E. “Mother” Tusch is shown here shortly before her collection was sent to Washington in 1947. She is surrounded by the aviation memorabilia that she avidly collected, especially the personal items given to her by the many military pilots who trained at the U.S. School of Military Aeronautics at the University of California at Berkeley campus during WWI. These objects, now in the NASM’s collection, were meant to show the aviators’ gratitude for her maternal concern for them, hence the name “Mother” Tusch.</p>


Further historical investigation of commercially-produced popular culture is necessary before we have a complete picture. Some questions to consider: who are the manufacturers of these products? Is there a relationship between the poplar objects of aviation and spaceflight and other collectibles that represent a dominant cultural image? Were these items advertised, if so, how were they advertised? What were the conditions of the workers who produced these items? Are these or similar types of materials being manufactured today?

The Museum does not have a collections fund to purchase items like these, which are likely to be found in the hands of collectors. Thus, subsequent acquisition of popular culture objects depends largely on the generosity of people like Michael O’Harro and Stanley King. Both curatorial divisions, however, have clearly-articulated collecting plans that specify what types of popular culture the Museum wishes to collect. The Aeronautics Division, for example, is especially interested in obtaining consumer items such as toys, games, household furnishings, apparel, and other collectibles that relate to aviation, especially for the interwar years, World War II, and the 1950s, and of more recent vintage, toys like action figures of pilots from the Vietnam War era to the present day, dolls or action figures that represent women in aviation, and electronic media like arcade games and flight simulation games for personal computers. The Space History Division is especially interested in acquiring scarce or rare items from early space science fiction, toys, games, lunch boxes, and other collectibles, electronic media like arcade games, computer games, and console games, and cultural objects from the early Project Mercury/Gemini/Apollo eras.