Two hundred people are milling around outside the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History 20 minutes before the 10 a.m. opening time. Is the story of naval ships back in vogue? A special exhibit on the life and times of Daniel Boone?

Neither. The crowds have come to celebrate television, specifically "M*A*S*H," the smash show of the '70s about wacky but compassionate military doctors during the Korean war.

More than 18,000 people have seen the exhibit since it opened July 30, a turnout that breaks all museum attendance records for special exhibits.

In a shrine that already contains TV-age icons such as Fonzie's motorcycle jacket and Archie Bunker's easy chair, a collection of relics from the original "M*A*S*H" set has incited unprecedented fervor among legions of sitcom faithful.

The exhibit, which some fans complain is too small, includes a full-scale version of the 4077th's grungy operating room; Hawkeye Pierce's tent, the Swamp (complete with gin still), and "Hot Lips" Houlihan's pink surgery duds.

"It's different; it's reality," says Mat Aigner, 13, who with his parents has made it to the middle of an unmoving line inside the museum.

"This is our second trip," Mat's mother Beverly says. "Yesterday there were so many people we couldn't get in at all." This time they will stick it out.

Museum officials, meanwhile, are happily scrambling for explanations as to why a twice-removed dramatization of a frustrating and bloody conflict would attract so much attention.

"There was something about the spirit of the show itself that touched a lot of people," says Gary Kulik, chairman of the museum's department of social and cultural history. "If we did a more historically sophisticated exhibit on Korea, it would not have been as popular."

Corey Lund, 10, a World War II model buff from Minnesota, says he watches recycled "M*A*S*H" episodes "because they're funny, and Alan Alda (who played the protagonist, Pierce) is a good actor."

"Do you think the show showed that war was bad?" asks Corey's father, Gary. The boy agrees with an emphatic "yeah."

"M*A*S*H" ran for 11 years, through February, and collected 99 Emmy nominations among numerous other honors.

The show "dealt with a lot of tough issues in a human way," says Beth Hall, 25. "It made you look at yourself and your beliefs about important things that have happened."

The Smithsonian exhibit matter-of-factly describes the show's antiwar and antiauthoritarian sentiments, as well as its occasionally anachronistic references to social trends of the 1970s, such as feminism and homosexual activism.

"It was a more interesting show early on, when it was making more political statements," says Marv Shaw, 22. "Later, when Vietnam was not really relevant anymore, it didn't touch those issues as much."

One segment of the exhibit pairs scenes from "M*A*S*H" episodes with grim black-and-white photographs of actual American field hospitals from the Korean War.

But Kulik is correct: Few people seem to have politics or history on their minds as they shuffle past the display cases.

Like Mat Aigner, they're after some notion of reality in the lives of television heroes: "Is that real blood in the intravenous bottles?" "Why are there no guns?"

The children inevitably duel over TV trivia facts.

"That's where Hawkeye slept," Tim Smith, 12, announces as he points into the infamous bachelor pad.

"No, that's Winchester's bed," insists sister Mary, 13. "Hawkeye slept over there, near the martini machine."

Several steps away, the Corporal Klinger display has caused a traffic jam. Two of the cheerful cross-dresser's favorite outfits hang from the wall, along with an explanation that Betty Grable once wore the pink coat while Ginger Rogers had waltzed in the gold evening gown.

There's also a sign noting that Jamie Farr, who played Klinger, was the only actor in the series who actually fought in Korea.

Twentieth Century-Fox Films, which provided the props, first suggested that the Smithsonian memorialize the television show, Kulik says. A staff of about 40 volunteers was marshaled to shepherd visitors through the exhibit.

The museum itself hasn't failed to cash in on the resurgence of "M*A*S*H" nostalgia. A souvenir stand refurbished as an Army supply shack does brisk business in toy ambulances, camouflage green tote bags and personalized military dog tags.

Tim Mott of Iowa emerges from the total M*A*S*H experience to pronounce that "it makes a statement about the country and the times, not only Korea. This is about America."