Museums Mad for Mad Men

Culture Watch
tags: Mad Men, Museum of the Moving Image

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

The final season of the popular AMC television series Mad Men, that chronicles life in the advertising business in the 1960s, begins on Sunday, April 5 and America’s museums and television and film societies are getting ready for it with a celebration that would rival that for any new client at the show’s Sterling Cooper Agency.

The history series traces the professional life of the handsome and mysterious Don Draper, who became one of America’s greatest fictional ‘60s ad men. Alongside that story is the drama of Draper’s personal life, including his several marriages, kids and perfect suburban home in Ossining, New York. Populating his world is a greedy and duplicitous group of ad men, such as Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell, and lovable women new to the business, such as Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson. It is an extraordinary series because it takes a rich and complex look at U.S. history from 1960 to the 1970s, with plenty of liquor, cigarettes and sex amid a rapidly changing America that was struggling through the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, campus unrest and the unpopular Vietnam War.

It seems like everybody wants to honor the Mad Men show this spring. Museums, especially, are just mad for Mad Men.

The Smithsonian, in Washington, D.C., will welcome several pieces of Don Draper’s 1960s costumes and a copy of a script, The Wheel, with its several alternative endings written by series founder/producer/writer Matthew Weiner.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hosting a two day conference on March 26 and 27 in which Weiner and cast members will view clips from some episodes of the series and discuss them with each other and members of the audience.

Last weekend, cast members and Weiner held panel discussions at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, Mad Men: The End of an Era. That was the highlight of a weekend long screening of Mad Men episodes there.

On April 22 and 23, the New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music will host a two day series of films, picked by Weiner, which helped inspire the series. Weiner will speak at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage March 29 and at the 92d St. YMCA on April 28. The New York Public Library will host an exhibit in May, after the conclusion of the final series and, shortly after that, publish its ‘Mad Men Reading List,’ a series of 25 books mentioned during the run of the show. Today, a large sculpture honoring the show was unveiled in front of the Time-Life building in New York, where the show’s fictional offices were located.

By far the biggest and most heralded exhibit, though, is Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men at the Museum of the Moving Image, in 36-01 35th Street, Queens, New York, that just opened. That exhibit will be on view through June 14.

Barbara Miller, the curator of the collection, echoed the feelings of many when she said, in a statement, that “Mad Men is much more than a popular television series. It has become a cultural touchstone inspiring renewed interest in a critical time in the country’s history.”

That view is reflected several times in the exhibit, when Weiner is quoted talking about the show as an “historical moment.”

I went to the exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York on Sunday, arriving fifteen minutes before the Museum opened and stood on a line of Mad Men fans that stretched around the block.

The sumptuous, highly informative Mad Men exhibit in New York is rewarding for fans of the show and people just interested in television or 1960s history. The exhibit has the actual Writer’s Room from the Los Angeles studio where Weiner and the six to eight writers he used each year discussed every aspect of every minute of every show. There are eight seats around a large conference table full of notepads and scripts. A corkboard wall has paper armada of notes pinned to it (for the exhibit, they removed notes from the last season so visitors would not learn anything about the plot).

There is the wallpapered kitchen from the Ossining home of the Drapers during the first few seasons of the show, with its old refrigerator, small cardboard cereal boxes and overcrowded counter. The tiny breakfast table is to the right and the famous telephone is on the wall. It is so realistic you expect Betty Draper, grumbling about something, to walk in at any moment.

The centerpiece of the exhibit, though, is the actual office that Don Draper used for seven years. The famous white sofa is to the right, his large desk in the middle and his 1960s record console across the way. On the other side of the venetian blinds on the window is a large fake cityscape view of Manhattan. Placed deliciously to the right of Draper’s desk is the fabled liquor trays he used, with six or seven bottles in their proper places (they have got to be nearly empty, right?). An old rotary phone (remember them?) sits on his desk.

What is wonderful about the exhibit is the way that visitors talk about it, the series and how their own homes reflected the sets in the show. Everybody talked about the kitchen. “My mother just sold her old GE refrigerator. It looked just like that one there,” laughed one woman, pointing at Betty’s refrigerator.

“I remember the old cereal boxes and the old ice cream containers,” laughed another. “And all the smoking! Those people must have smoked themselves to death!”

Don’t forget the drinking. The ad men on the show hit the bottle before noon and kept drinking all day. Where did they put it all?

What’s really fascinating is that the curators placed TV sets playing episodes of a show and then, right behind the TV, placed mannequins wearing the actual suits and dresses from the scene in that show. We saw one clip of Joan sitting on a chair talking to Don and there was her dress, right behind the TV monitor. There were sketches of party scenes at Megan Draper’s California apartment and then, next to them, clips from a party at the apartment.

If you were around in the sixties, you will love the props, all of which appeared in the show – milk bottles, cigarette lighters, ash trays (hundreds of them), packages of both Old God and Lucky Strike cigarettes, old 78 rpm record albums, Life magazine issues, 1960s Disneyland Guides, ‘60s TVs sitting on their stands, with just 13 channels on the dialing knobs, drawer liner paper, quilted pink bathrobes, basement bars for the home and rolling bars, lots of whiskey.

A real revelation is all of the historical research into 1960s life that was done by Weiner and his staff. Weiner wrote lengthy biographies of each character and then connected them to the world in that era. Weiner had thousands of small note sheets filled with handwritten information on the episodes. There are piles and piles of scripts, with lots of changes, sitting around the exhibit. There is a secretary’s desk from the office filled with everything a secretary in the 1960s would have. There is nothing fake here; it is all realistic. You see the infamous wooden box in which all the photos of Don’s “other” life were kept under lock and key – and opened by Betty one day. There is a really interesting corner of the exhibit where a TV plays the episode in which Don Draper talks to a waiter in a restaurant about cigarettes and it is mentioned that Reader’s Digest had just run an article claiming that cigarettes caused cancer. A copy of the magazine article is right there. It is noted in another video that the ad men of Sterling Cooper did not care about the cigarette controversy—they just created ads.

The one thing the exhibit does not showcase enough (there is a little) is the revolution in women’s work at the office. Joan rises to partner and Peggy becomes an account executive in a world of the 1960s that was run by men, and not just in advertising agencies. The show follows how the women’s movement, through mostly Joan and Peggy, burst into the world of American business. There should be more of that.

Why not one of Don’s old sports cars? One of the picnic baskets you see so often in the series? Betty’s numerous tennis outfits?

Oh well, you can’t show everything, right? You want to see everything, watch the show. It will be on TV somewhere, somehow, forever.

And this history giant of a show should be, too.


Accompanying the exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image will be a retrospective film series of movies that Matthew Weiner felt influenced him in the creation of the storyline and characters of Mad Man. These films, shown as a separate admission ticket, are:

Les Bonnes Femmes, Friday, March 27 at 7 p.m.;, Patterns, Saturday, April 4 at 4 p.m., Dear Heart, Saturday, April 4 at 7 p.m., The Bachelor Party, Saturday, April 11 at 4 p.m., The Best of Everything, Saturday, April 18 at 2 p.m. and The Americanization of Emily, Saturday, April 25th at 2 p.m. Movies shown already included The Apartment, Vertigo and North by Northwest.

The Museum of the Moving Image is located at 36-01 35th Street, Queens, New York. The exhibit will be on view through June 14. It is advisable to arrive early.

comments powered by Disqus