For a lot of people, 1968 is a year they'd like to forget. It was the bloodiest for American troops in Vietnam, a war that deeply divided the nation, a year of gun violence from city streets to the assassinations of two important figures in U.S. history, social unrest that found the smoke from torched buildings drifting over the nation's Capitol Building, a "police riot" in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention and a divisive presidential election with themes of racism and "law and order" drowning out moderate voices.
Candidate George Wallace, who threatened to run over protesters with his car, drew 77,000 votes in Allegheny County, miles away from his Alabama base.
Despite the pervasive sense of unease in the country that began with the shocking Tet Offensive in January, social and cultural movements such as the women's liberation movement, renewed focus on poverty and a growing sophistication in theater, television, films, books and music kept Americans from losing faith in their troubled country.
The Heinz History Center Saturday opened a 2 1/2-month "celebration" of that year, "1968: The Year that Rocked America," an exhibit that highlights the good, bad and ugly (especially in clothes) that distinguished '68.
Center director Andrew Masich called those 12 months "a watershed" in American politics and culture as he led a tour of the busy 8,000-square-foot show full of artifacts, video displays and a variety of interactive exhibits, including the chance to change your presidential vote.
The show opened at the Minnesota History Center and traveled to Oakland, Calif., before settling into the Strip District location and adding a few local touches, including the 1968 set of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," the WQED-TV production that went national that year.
Visitors are confronted immediately by a Huey helicopter, a version of the craft that rescued so many wounded G.I.'s in Vietnam. It was assembled by a volunteer crew of local veterans, many of whom were transported to 1968 and their war experiences. "Some of the vets were reminded of that time because of the Huey's particular smell of its hydraulic system," Mr. Masich said.
Organized by month, "1968" highlights the Tet Offensive of January, when North Vietnamese fighters reached Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, touching off a desperate stand by U.S. forces. Although the attack was fended off, the stunning turn in the war caused many to doubt the cause itself, and that doubt eventually led to the downfall of President Lyndon Johnson.
The Huey has been converted into a viewing area where visitors can hear and see the experiences of Vietnam vets, including writer Tim O'Brien, whose account of the war, "The Things They Carried," is illustrated with some of those items. This segment of the exhibit offers a stark history of the conflict, including a graph showing the grim statistics of American fatalities that peaked in February 1968.
Other stark reminders of the year's horrors include -- the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy in June, the violent confrontations in Chicago in August at the Democratic convention and the rise of the Black Panther movement throughout the year.
'1968: The Year That Rocked America'
Senator John Heinz History Center, Strip District.
Through May 12; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
$15 adults; $13 seniors; $6 students and children 6-17.
412-454-6000 or www.heinzhistorycenter.org.
Unless noted, the events are free with museum membership or admission.
Counterbalancing the tragedy of 1968 are displays of TV shows and films of that year, whimsical examples of colorful dishware and picnic equipment, including the tartan-covered "Scotch Cooler," although the Minnesota Hamm's beer bottles might be replaced with Iron City Beer's "snap-top" cans.
It wouldn't be an accurate picture of 1968 without the enormous presence of pop music, and the exhibit gives the sounds of that year their due with a trivia contest, make-your-own album cover activity and even Janis Joplin's bell-bottoms.
Placed here and there are themed "lounges" where visitors can take a break while still feeling the ambiance of the times, computers where they can record their memories of the year and a vintage voting booth (no ID required) where they can vote in the 1968 presidential election, including information on the many candidates.
So far, Robert Kennedy is outpacing his rivals in this revisionist take on '68.
December is distinguished by Apollo 8's mission to orbit the moon and send home stunning, first-time pictures of a blue Earth, narrated on TV as always by Walter Cronkite, the CBS news anchor whose authoritative voice also can be heard bringing the bad news of Tet 12 months earlier.
A replica of Apollo 8 thrusts into a vintage '68 living room, symbolizing the effectiveness of television in bringing the world into American homes, from the horrors of Vietnam to the gentle wisdom of Fred Rogers.
The exhibit closes May 12. Partners include the Smithsonian Institution and history centers from Minnesota, Atlanta, Chicago and Oakland, Calif., with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Feb. 22: "Night of the Living Dead," the iconic zombie movie made in Western Pennsylvania in 1968, will be shown following an exhibit tour 5-7 p.m. Included are a costume contest and refreshments. Co-sponsored by The ScareHouse and House of the Dead.
Feb. 27: Panel discussion, "Civil Rights in Pittsburgh: Lessons From 1968." Panelists include Alma Speed Fox, Ralph Proctor and Sala Udin. 6 p.m.
March 8: History Uncorked: Peace, Love and Rock 'n' Roll. The History Center is the venue for the 15th annual gathering of young professionals with proceeds benefitting the center. $65 at the door, $50 in advance through Showclix.com. 7-11 p.m.
March 14: Panel discussion, "Sisterhood in Pittsburgh: Women's Liberation From the 1960s to Today." On the panel will be Molly Rush, Cindy Judd Hill, Sister Patricia McCann and Alma Speed Fox. 6 p.m.
April 12-13: A celebration of the 1960s with a period fashion show from 6 to 8 p.m. April 12 and a series of activities from games, music, food to classic cars from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. April 13. Co-sponsored by Modcloth and Pittsburgh Vintage Mixer.
May 11: Panel discussion, "Veteran Memories," featuring military veterans from 60 years of U.S. conflicts, focusing on the Vietnam War. 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Free admission for vets and their families.
Bob Hoover: email@example.com. First Published February 3, 2013 5:00 AM