Image c/o Thanassi Karageorgiou/Museum of the Moving Image
Much like the television series it showcase, the Mad Men exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image creates an aura of immersive nostalgia: where a longing for an era, and understanding, culminates in an ode to the creative process.
Wesconnect went behind the scenes of the Mad Men exhibition with Executive Director of the Museum of the Moving Image, Carl Goodman ’88. The exhibition runs through June 14; alumni, parents and friends are invited to a special Wesleyan evening on May 28. Buy tickets now
On the exhibit
Once the MoMI decided to tell the story of process, from inspiration to writing to character development to production design, they adopted a linear approach. Within every section, this linearity gives way to a hectic sort of energy, mirroring the creative process the exhibition is structured around. It’s very intentional, but feels organic.
“We needed to bring the writer’s room, intact, back to the Museum, along with the many documents that shape the show’s story,” said Carl. Most exhibitions that explore the collaborative process of filmmaking don’t tackle the subject of writing, nor do they attempt to delve into the mind of the maker to find out where ideas come from. “It’s treacherous territory,” said Carl. “And a testimony to the fearlessness and intelligence of Barbara Miller, the Museum’s Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, that she engaged with these subjects in the Mad Men show.” It was the Museum’s open access to Matthew Weiner ’87 that facilitated such a rich showcase. “He’s an enabler…not a gatekeeper.” Barbara Miller calls Matthew a “great personal archivist of his own creative process.”
The Mad Men exhibition at the Museum has been unceasingly popular. The exhibition winds around the Changing Gallery space and follows the structure of the creative process. It begins with a showcase of select books that influenced Matthew Weiner, his notes, a play about a boy who grows up in a brothel and recreates his self, a small listening station where visitors can hear Matthew talking about his music choices for the closing credits.
A natural single-file line emerges from the exhibition’s small walkways and crowds of people. It makes the experience personal, immersive, and makes you relish every artifact you walk by.
Matthew’s notes are splayed on a table under Plexiglas. It’s the first thing you see when you walk up the stairs. “We never once thought of digitizing them,” Carl said. “The use of media shows reverence to the objects…they should bring you closer to them.” The Museum put clips from the show on relatively small screens near the artifacts, as a “reminder of the object’s original context.” When he first saw his notes and excavated script material, Matthew Weiner told Variety that it was “so weird—it’s like pulling your pants down in public.”
There are iPads where you can flip through various multipage proposals, like the one for the credits, or Milton Glaser’s group’s graphic identity for the final season. This section is at the end of the exhibition; it “double backs” on itself to show how different creative professionals pitched their ideas. This is right after a display of the ‘fake’ ad campaigns from the real brands on the show. It creates an interesting physical rhythm. The space between new technology and older modes within the TV series’ plot is replicated in this frisson between the digital and the analog.
“My heart sinks when we un-install a temporary exhibition. We put so much into it, and then it’s gone.” It will be especially true of the Mad Men exhibition, which comes on the heels of the end of the show itself.
Image c/o Thanassi Karageorgiou/Museum of the Moving Image
On the Show
As a visitor and a long-time Mad Men fan, I walked away mulling over the layers of retrospection. The MoMI, and numerous other institutions and events (including Mad Men Dining Week) were engaged in a cultural commemoration of the self-titled “The End of an Era” final season. This is a show about another era and its popularity positioned its run as an era itself. A retrospective on a retrospective? What era is ending?
The show is obsessed with the idea of creation—the creation of ad copy, of course, but also the creation of the self. The show recreates a time—though it is not strictly a period piece. It’s a time machine. And TIME’s James Poniewozik posits that it’s a “holy idea”—“one moment contains all other moments…if you study one time well enough, you understand all times and all people.”
Likewise, when you talk to Weiner about the end of the series, about what he wants to say with the finale, what you get is not simply nostalgia—not sentimentality or any notion of working toward a final endpoint in time. While working on the last episodes, Weineer’s been thinking about history and time on a broader scale than the 1960s or even the 20th century. He’s been thinking, for one thing, about the French Revolution.
…we’re visiting our own time, just with a few layers of wallpaper scrapped off the bedroom wall. We’re visiting the same place we live, even if you’ve never set foot in midtown Manhattan.
…it’s an idea the show has in common with spirituality, and strangely enough, also with science fiction: that four-dimensional, unstuck-in-time concept of one moment connecting with every other….Weiner described the show as “science fiction set in the past”—and what is the favorite subject of science fiction if not time?
Image c/o Variety
Matthew Weiner wrote the show to interact with current vents. He was thinking of both present-day America, as well as the late 1960s. “People were exhausted and terrified by the economic disaster of the last few years…they had low self-esteem, they were anxious about our place in the world.” As Don Draper says in the famous Kodak Wheel scene, “It goes backwards and forwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”
Don muses on the power of nostalgia: “It’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” As Matthew Weiner told TIME, “I love that definition about nostalgia being the pain from an old wound. There is a pleasure in picking at that.”
When we look back on how things began, how they formed, we are also engaging with the pain of an ending. The show has garnered 15 Emmys, 4 Golden Globes, and global, critical acclaim. With the fanfare and overwhelming commemorations, it’s not going quietly. As someone who does not have an AMC subscription, I have been struggling in writing this article. Spoilers, reviews, and conspiracy theories are everywhere. Here’s the trailer for the series finale, which will be aired on Sunday, May 17. I’ve heard (I have not watched it) that it is drenched with nostalgia:
I visited the show on a busy Saturday afternoon. I gleaned from a cursory glance at the line curling around the entrance of the Mad Men show that the majority of people waiting in line were under forty. The line undulated, in what was for me a moment of grand visual irony, into the antique/old cameras section. The couple standing behind me were wearing very mod clothes; one woman was wearing a beehive and a Joan-esque green dress. Mad Men catalyzed the creation of nostalgia for an entire segment of the audience for whom this era is not even a distant memory. I thought it was false longing. Carl, in his years of museum curation, posited that this was not false—“that in a sense, they have lived through them, but through the culture of their own time.” His grandmother had a kitchen very much like Don and Betty’s (the set of which is on display); his grandmother used to serve him ice milk in that kitchen, so Carl inhabited that time himself.
“A whole new generation will remember living through the 60s because they saw it on Mad Men,” he said. “Culture is constantly being recycled, so what we often experience is…uh-oh, let’s just leave it the rest to Baudrillard & company.” Baudrillard, a French post-structuralist whose interests lay in how technological processes affect social change, would have been very interested in this retrospective on a retrospective show. Shows like Mad Men and spaces like the MoMI have enabled us to live through many eras. That, at least, will never end. -ANK
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- Behind the Scenes of Mad Men: An Interview with Carl Goodman ’88
- TIME: Mad Men: The Time Machine
- 10 memories triggered by the new ‘Mad Men’ exhibit
- Film Series at the MoMI: Required Viewing: Mad Men‘s Movie Influences
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