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Smithsonian exhibit tells America's history through objects of entertainment

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What connects the flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner," Superman's cape and Tito Puente's drums? NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg knows.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: They're all part of a spiffy, noisy, newish exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

JOHN TROUTMAN: We cover about a hundred fifty years of entertainment history in the United States.

STAMBERG: Curator John Troutman and staff sorted through thousands of objects, many scattered in various exhibits throughout the museum, and put about 200 of them together in Entertainment Nation to tell American history through things that amused or thrilled or dismayed or moved us over decades.

We have taken about 10 steps, and we have gone past Marian Anderson...

TROUTMAN: (Laughter).

STAMBERG: ...R2-D2, Judy Garland.

What's entertainment without the ruby slippers or Prince's guitar?

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "WHEN DOVES CRY")

TROUTMAN: We performed some paint analysis on a paint chip on the back of the guitar and found seven layers of paint, different colors. We were able to determine with all likelihood that this is the guitar that's actually in the film "Purple Rain."

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

STAMBERG: What's entertainment without Archie Bunker's beat-up armchair?

TROUTMAN: Archie and Edith both played such different roles on that show.

STAMBERG: One's a bigot, and one's not.

TROUTMAN: (Laughter) And that was Norman Lear's intention - to really explore the power of television in convening these conversations.

STAMBERG: On "All In The Family," Archie helped us talk about race.

Oh, this is Althea Gibson's tennis dress.

The History Museum shows it spotless, immaculate. African American Gibson wore it when she won at Wimbledon in 1958. Segregation was a widespread fact of life. In a white world, her triumph was color. Mr. Rogers' red cardigan, Oscar's trash can...

TROUTMAN: Visitors of all ages love this moment where they turn around the corner and they see Oscar the Grouch. They see Elmo. It's all kind of a celebration of children's television and how children's television also has worked in important ways to inform kids about the big stuff.

STAMBERG: Race, fairness, ideals, death and fears - all touched on by things we bought, heard, saw, laughed at, loved over the decades - Entertainment Nation.

TROUTMAN: One of the strong takeaways is that there's a persistence of common concerns and goals and ambitions for people in this country.

STAMBERG: Curator John Troutman's best hope is that visitors will realize...

TROUTMAN: Important questions about our democracy are everywhere and in entertainment.

STAMBERG: Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF WALE SONG, "SABOTAGE (FT. LLOYD)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.