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From House of Cards to Breaking Bad, how TV is becoming part of US history

“The influence of television on American art is as old as television itself.”

Frank Underwood at The Smithsonian in the series 4 of House of Cards.
Frank Underwood at The Smithsonian in the series 4 of House of Cards.

SOME SAY TELEVISION is experiencing a new golden era, and America’s museums are putting those highly acclaimed shows on display, showcasing popular culture in their prestigious spaces in hopes of attracting younger and more diverse visitors.

In the US 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?

PastedImage-44079 The Smithsonian unveils its portrait of Frank Underwood. Kevin Spacey's character in House of Cards. Source: wochit entertainment

“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, won’t be on public display until a planned 2018 exhibit on American culture.

22704952549_fd9cae7d44_z The National Museum of American History features items from Breaking Bad. Source: Flickr

But fans who can’t 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 8 May.

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.

‘New, younger, more diverse’

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

Kidd, the author of Pop Culture Freaks, says the US has numerous museums dedicated to film and television, adding that “the influence of television on American art is as old as television itself”.

© – AFP 2015

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