"M*A*S*H: Binding Up the Wounds" will make the Smithsonian Museum of American History so popular a tourist stop this summer that someone may be moved to create a TV sitcom about the place.
They could call it "S*M*A*H" -- as in Smithsonian Museum of American History -- and the episodes could play off the friction between conservative staffers who want more space for 19th-century coal-mining techniques, say, and those wacky, irreverent guys who put together the Sylvester Stallone retrospective and dream of a "Flashdance" wing.
To be fair, television's as much a part of American history as undeclared wars in Asia, and there's no possibility, at this writing, of the Smithsonian's merging with 20th Century-Fox. But this is, after all, an exhibit loosely based on a TV series loosely based on a movie loosely based on actual death and destruction.
In other words: reality, circa 1983.
The Smithsonian, with a gift from 20th Century-Fox of two stage sets -- the "Swamp" and the operating room -- from the 11-year, award-winning television series, has put together an engrossing, entertaining and mostly level-headed exhibit, of interest as much to fans of military and medical history as of television. Although the museum already owns Archie Bunker's living room furniture and Dick Clark's lectern, the "M*A*S*H" exhibit marks the first time the Smithsonian has ever had an entire studio set to work with.
The museum maintains its distance and dignity with 15 groups of photographs -- black-and-white "real life" photos from Korea (and Vietnam) clustered around color shots of TV's 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital -- and by mounting a row of real stage lights above the genuine military operating-room lights hanging from the O.R.'s corrugated metal roof.
"Technically, the "M*A*S*H" people were very faithful to the Korean era," says Edward Ezell, who runs the museum's military history division. He's the type of guy who, when watching war films, will aggravate his wife and houseguests by pointing out incongruous tanks and misplaced aircraft. "Most of the social issues they dealt with, though, were really of the Vietnam era or later."
The Swamp -- the surgical officers' quarters where Capt. Hawkeye Pierce, alias Alan Alda, sought respite as a cut-up from the grislier knifework of the O.R. -- is the best part of the exhibit. His martini glass and tabletop moonshine are still there, along with his corduroy robe, Hawaiian shirt and the Christmas cards and letters from home tacked up below the ammunition-case bookshelf above his bunk.
Peering through the Plexiglas-covered mosquito netting, past Major Winchester's Webcor tape recorder and phonograph, you get a feeling for the claustrophobic absurdity that inspired the book by Richard Hornberger, which inspired the film by Robert Altman, which inspired the series by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds.
If you have truly amazing eyesight, though, you'll notice that one of the letters tacked above Hawkeye's Army-issue, Korean-era bunk is addressed to "Jaclyn Smith, ABC Television, Hollywood, Calif."
You will like this exhibit, but while you're there, raise an eyebrow or two. For America. M*A*S*H: BINDING UP THE WOUNDS -- At the National Museum of American History, 14th and Constitution NW, through September 30.