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Collecting the 20th Century

When I first took my current job, our collection pretty much ended at World War II. Like most museums, we had ignored more than 50 years of history by focusing only on artifacts that were considered “old enough” to be in a museum.

At the same time, potential donors didn’t believe that the stuff of their own lifetimes was “museum worthy.”

But why should we wait until mid- and late-20th century artifacts are so rare we can’t find them anymore, or we have to pay top dollar at a fancy auction? We should be collecting them NOW!

I decided to help my community understand why it is important to collect the recent past. I planned an exhibit for Christmas time called “Jingle Bell Rock: A 1950s Holiday.” The exhibit was organized by the concept of gift-giving for Mom, Dad, and Kids.

Because we didn’t have much in our collection to represent the decade, I contacted our local newspaper and asked if they would help us get the word out. Ultimately, I hoped to build our collection, but I would also accept neat 50s items on loan, if the owner did not want to part with their retro treasures.

Calls flooded my office!

We got a fantastic Hamilton Beach standing mixer, a funky star and moon themed “Atomic Age” cream and sugar set, and vintage Tupperware. There was a colorful set of aluminum bowls and tumblers, an aluminum Christmas tree (complete with color wheel!), a bicycle, television, and lots of toys and games. I actually got enough items to recreate a 1950s kitchen AND living room!

The exhibit was a huge hit! And the results are still resonating years later. People call me before hauling treasures off to Goodwill, or worse, putting them out on the curb for the garbage men. (Disclaimer: I am a big supporter of Goodwill and bring them lots of donations from my closet. There are just some things that belong in a museum instead of being sold for 50 cents!)

Sure, it can be difficult to figure out the kinds of things that represent an era that we are still rather close to. But there are some iconic things that every museum’s collection should contain.

Here’s a quick list of my “museum worthy” ideas for recent decades. Share your thoughts in the forum!

Of course, vintage clothing and furniture from every era.

1950s

(see above for more!)
hula hoop
cocktail dresses
pearls
bartending tools
bomb shelter materials
costume jewelry
saddle shoes

1960s

pillbox hats
Chatty Cathy
Barbie
GI Joe
anti-war memorabilia
Ouija board
Etch-a-Sketch
Rockem Sockem robots (still in catalogs today!)

1970s

leisure suits
Disco records
bell-bottoms
Pet Rock
Operation board game
Star Wars action figures
Baby Alive (clean out her insides first!!)
Big Wheel
8 track player and tapes

1980s

Rubik’s cube
Cabbage Patch doll
Atari
Merlin
Apple computer
Lite Brite
EZ Bake Oven
California Raisins figures
Care Bears
neon clothing
women’s “power suits” (with huge shoulder pads!)
leg warmers
Colorforms

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