Top TV series getting museum treatment in US

Actor Kevin Spacey standing beside a portrait of his House of Cards character Frank J. Underwood at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Feb 22.
Actor Kevin Spacey standing beside a portrait of his House of Cards character Frank J. Underwood at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Feb 22.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Some say television is experiencing a new golden era and America's museums are putting those highly acclaimed shows on display, in hopes of attracting younger and more diverse visitors.

In the United States capital Washington, the National Portrait Gallery houses the likenesses of all of the country's great leaders - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and.... Francis Underwood?

Underwood, Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey's cunning fictional president on the powerhouse Netflix series House Of Cards, sits cross-legged at a desk - his Oval Office, of course.

The work made its debut last week and will be on display until October. The display coincides with Friday's release of the fourth season of the political drama.

"I'm one step closer to convincing the rest of the country that I am the president," Spacey joked the day the portrait was unveiled.

But why would a museum feature a fictional TV character?

"Not only does it reflect the impact of popular contemporary culture on America's story, but it also exemplifies the fine art tradition of actors portrayed in their roles," explained Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery.

The National Museum of American History, also in Washington, gave a similar explanation when it added iconic objects from the cult TV series Breaking Bad to its collection last November.

The yellow hazmat suit and the black porkpie hat worn by Walter White, a meek chemistry teacher who becomes a drug kingpin, will not be on public display until a planned 2018 exhibit on American culture.

But fans who cannot wait that long can visit a new exhibit at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas that features the protective suit and mask that White, played by Emmy winner Bryan Cranston, wore while cooking meth.

Other small screen sensations featured by American museums include early 20th century clothing worn by the aristocratic characters and their household staff on Downton Abbey at Chicago's Driehaus Museum, on display until May 8.

There was also last year's Mad Men exhibit at New York's Museum of the Moving Image, which coincided with the final episodes of the acclaimed show about a narcissistic advertising executive's professional and family life in the 1960s.

"There is nothing surprising about seeing the influence of television" in American museums, said Dustin Kidd, a sociologist at Temple University in Pennsylvania.

The author of Pop Culture Freaks told AFP the country has numerous museums dedicated to film and television, and that "the influence of television on American art is as old as television itself." But Vera Zolberg, a sociologist at the New School, a university in New York, said featuring TV series may well be a new trend.

She compared it to museums hosting visitors for sleepovers. Now routinely offered as an option, she said she "would not have imagined such a practice" a few years ago.

Peggy Levitt, a sociologist at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, said pop culture exhibits are becoming more prevalent as museums realise they need to change their practices to bring in "new, younger, more diverse audiences." "There is a growing recognition in this country that the people inside museums do not look like the people outside them," she said.

A 2010 study by the American Association of Museums showed that white Americans make up 69 per cent of the population but account for 79 per cent of museum visitors. African-Americans and Hispanics were largely under-represented.

The study predicted that in 25 years, those minorities would make up 46 per cent of the American population but only nine per cent of visitors.

"Museums have to change what they do and bring in more diverse audiences if they want to survive and thrive in the 21st century," Levitt said.

She said some museums are changing the look and feel of their displays, for example, making them more colourful or shortening text descriptions to appeal to a broader audience.

"Other times, it meant putting graffiti, comic book characters or President Underwood on display," Levitt said.

But she added: "I don't see a threat in this. The Mona Lisa isn't going anywhere."