March 7, 2002

On the Wire

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We can all remember childhood games and amusements that would keep us occupied for hours upon hours. Some of these games have been iconographically preserved as dated representations of an era, while others have faded into obscurity. But every now and then, a game or toy becomes popular enough for people to memorialize them as representations of our popular culture — of an era specific to cultural, political, or social movements.

From Linkin’ Logs to Monopoly, such games and toys have a cultural and historical significance that is far greater than one might believe. One of the best examples of the quintessential iconographic childhood toy includes none other than the infamous paint-by-number kits that led even the most inartistic individuals to believe that they had some potential for the masterful and specified use of the watercolor medium. And what other toy could be better than one that allows its user to feel as if he or she is mastering the art (no pun intended) of creation? Apparently, this odd pop creation serves a much more substantial role in American cultural history than one might think, and has recently become the source of an online exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

As noted in Entertainment Weekly (by accessing the informative site, www.americanhistory.si.edu/paint) one can enter the realm of the highly popularized fad initiated by the American culture of postwar prosperity and increased leisure time after World War II. Coinciding with the 1950s culture of apparent conformity, the paint-by-number phenomena allowed everyone, of all ages, to be an artist; it allowed every “man to be a Rembrandt.”

This site contains vast historical insight to the addictive nature of this cultural phenomenon. Furthermore, it allows the visitor to explore the true extent of paint-by-number’s popularity as it reached all members of our postwar culture and many other areas of the world. Most striking is the historical relevance of the trend, which the site aptly includes. Thus, according to the site, the most complete display of paint-by-number artworks were in the Eisenhower White House, “where presidential appointment secretary Thomas Edwin Stephens mounted a gallery of paint-by-number and amateur paintings by administration officials and acquaintances.”

Even in the 1970s, artist Paul Bridgewater was creating paint-by-number kits that were popularized as they were bought and used by American cultural icons, including pop artist Andy Warhol. Visitors are welcome to send in their own paint-by-number memories in an interactive dialogue between avid paint-by-number enthusiasts.

As this is only one exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, there are various other interactive links to be found on www.americanhistory.si.edu that allow the visitor to get a taste of the magnitude of works at this National Museum of American History. These links, accessed under the subhead, “Virtual Exhibitions,” include exhibits like this “Paint By Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s.” Other exhibitions of interest are “Artificial Anatomy,” which allows the visitor to have an interactive experience by identifying the body parts of a human model, and “The American President: A Glorious Burden,” which, although aimed toward children, allows people to work their way through a timeline of the American presidency.

On the main page of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, other areas of interest include, “The Music Room,” which offers both access to a past exhibit entitled “Piano 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos,” as well as to links that access the ability to play music relevant to both past and modern cultural history. In addition, the “Not Just For Kids” link brings the experience of the renowned hands-on exhibits of the museum directly into the home via your home computer.

Like the MOMA’s success in creating a virtual community among its frequenters, the Smithsonian National Museum of History has also succeeded in bringing its exhibitions to the Web and to the public at large. While some of these links are purely informative, others have some spectacular interactive aspects that allow the visitor to achieve an experience not unlike visiting the physical museum. Accordingly, various links are purely online sites of collected works at the museum. One such link is entitled, “History Wired: A Few of our Favorite Things,” an experimental site that allows visitors to guide themselves through the site and learn about some of the Museum’s three million objects. Although these items are not intended to represent the content of the Museum’s entire collection, they allow the public to view more of the Museum’s collection than is possible to display at its physical structure in D.C.; thus, it is like “a private tour through the Museum’s storage areas.”

So I want to give a special thanks to Entertainment Weekly for directing me to this site. This entire Smithsonian Institution site led me to become privy to the many uncommon intricacies and wondrous details surrounding our American culture history that has been included in displays at the Museum and on their online collections. Without this virtual trip to the Smithsonian collections and perusal of the paint-by-number exhibition, I would have never realized that what I regarded as a frivolous phenomena was really a veritable and symbolic representation of popular American culture at its peak.


Archived article by Barbara Seigel