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The Wizard of Oz captured the American imagination at its best and most Technicolor, but as “1939” demonstrates, life for many Americans the year of its release was hardly a trek down the yellow brick road. The National Museum of American History’s small exhibition captures a nation on the brink of major change—in politics, pop culture, technology, and civil rights—and on the cusp of war. Thanks to FDR’s Federal Art Project, photographers like Carl Mydans captured life during the still-going Great Depression, while Marian Anderson and Billie Holiday used their vocal talents to protest inferior treatment of African Americans. A more prosperous, and more trying, era was inevitable, but it remained just over the rainbow.

THE EXHIBITION IS ON VIEW DAILY 10 A.M. TO 5:30 P.M. AT THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY, 14TH STREET NW AND CONSTITUTION AVENUE. FREE. (202) 633-1000.