Jon Mark Beilue: Pop Culture: History That Doesn

Pop Culture: History That Doesn’t Seem Like It

By Jon Mark Beilue

When a piece of the Berlin Wall and “Kommisar,” a Cold War Russian board game from 1966, made their way from Virginia to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, and when a Watergate coloring book made its way from California to that same place on the West Texas A&M campus, it was clear this wasn’t going to be your grandfather’s museum exhibit.

Pop Culture at PPHMBut, then again, it absolutely was. And the son and the grandson’s exhibit too.

“History didn’t stop after World War II,” said Heather Friemel, associate director of finance and outreach, “and yet we don’t think our own history should be in a museum yet. But when you hear President Kennedy’s speech about going to the moon, and you remember where you were when these major events happened, it’s your history too.

“Our history is just as relevant as pioneer history, but sometimes people don’t think about their own memories, the events and changes they have lived through as the kind of history that is in a museum.”

Friemel and Buster Ratliff, the museum’s director of development, were the co-curators for Pop Culture, PPHM’s exhibit that includes four galleries that span from the end of World War II in 1945 through the present.

That’s nearly 75 years of change, progress and revolution the likes of which have not been matched in any previous time period in history. Technology, travel, human rights, styles, music, politics – no fabric of our lives has not been greatly altered in the pop culture period.

The exhibit, which opened in February, will conclude at the end of 2018. Two events remain to coincide with the Pop Culture exhibit – Pop Art, a showcase of local artists at the Cerulean Gallery at 814 S. Taylor St, in Amarillo beginning on Oct. 20 through Dec. 20, and the Pop Culture prom, set from 7 to 11 p.m. Nov. 10 at the museum.

The 11-month exhibit is a refreshing change from what can be staid and dry exhibits at museums. History doesn’t come with a time stamp, and it’s especially true now with change spinning at an unprecedented speed.

“This exhibit is a realization that we’re creating history every day,” said Carol Lovelady, director of PPHM.  “We have a tendency to think of history as something long ago and far away, but every day comes history when the next day arrives.

“Unlike many of our exhibits, people relate to this in a different way because they can look back at their own lives and remember when the things that we show in our galleries took place in their lifetime.”

The exhibit – and the pop culture period – is so encompassing that it took two floors and four galleries. “The Cultural Revolution” shows the major historical events – the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, civil rights and feminism, Watergate, and the space race among major events.

“RCA to Apple” shows the dramatic change from the way we communicate, the way we’re entertained through sights and sounds. “A Day in the Life” is a creative way to show fashion and style change with a look at six bedrooms – boys’ bedrooms from the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s, and girls’ bedrooms from the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s.

Then the Alexander Gallery of PPHM has more than six hours of famous movie moments of clips and trailers from bygone years.

“All of it is very good,” Ratliff said, “but I really like ‘Cultural Revolution’ and ‘Day in the Life.’ With ‘Cultural Revolution,’ just everything it covers, but then you throw in Batman and Wonder Woman. People sometimes don’t realize how much they’ve been affected by what’s going on in their lives.

“And ‘Day in the Life’ was just fun. Just to go and see those bedrooms and hear people say, ‘Oh my God, I just saw my bedroom from my childhood.’”

Ratliff estimates there are more than 300 artifacts in the exhibit to cover the nearly 75 years of pop culture. The museum was able to get artifacts from loan from six presidential libraries, which takes some cachet to obtain. The Richard Nixon library isn’t going to loan items necessarily just because they were asked.

“That shows how well recognized we are,” Lovelady said. “We are accredited with the American Alliance of Museums and that ensures we use the best museum practices.”

The co-curators were looking for accurate history, not a sanitized version of it. They got that from the presidential libraries.

“(Lyndon) Johnson and Nixon were both sensitive subjects,” Ratliff said. “Both of them were haunted by Vietnam, and, of course, with Nixon there was Watergate. It felt a little awkward to talk with the Nixon library, and say, ‘We’d like this from China and this from Vietnam, and, oh yes, Watergate.’ But both libraries were very up front. They knew we wanted to tell the story.”

There were cartoons of Johnson that criticized him on Vietnam, and there was an actual coloring book of Watergate that was obviously not flattering.

“On the flipside, we have the pen that Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights bill, so that’s pretty cool,” Ratliff said.

As different as the Pop Culture exhibit is to the usual fare at museums, so, too, is the reaction of the public.

“It’s fun when I give family tours to hear grandparents or parents with their kids or grandkids and at a certain point, they’ll want to tell their own story of how what they’re seeing relates to them,” Ratliff said.

“They say, ‘Come here, you got to see this.’ It’s the nostalgia factor a little bit. That’s what resonates. It’s not something that happened that no one can relate to. It’s ‘I remember where I was when that happened.’ People think of pop culture, and they think of music, comic books and entertainment, but it’s more than that. It’s history – modern history.”

Breakout: The Pop Culture exhibit at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum continues through the end of 2018. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2503 4th Avenue in Canyon. Admission for the entire museum is $12.50 for adults, $10 for ages 65 and older, $6 for ages 4-12. Special group rates are available. 806-651-2244.

The Pop Art exhibition opens Oct. 20 through Dec. 20 at the Cerulean Gallery, 814 S. Taylor St., in Amarillo. Hours are 6-8:30 p.m. 806-576-0063.

The Pop Culture prom is set for 7-11 p.m. Nov. 10 at the museum. Tickets are $30 in advance, $50 at the door. Advance tickets on sale until Nov. 8. 806-651-2244.

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for “WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?” If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at

To see more Jon Mark Beilue's columns, visit