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On a sunny day in 1969, singing kids asked a question for the first time: Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
In the late ’60s, adults wondered what exactly their children were learning as they spent hours in front of television screens, and what impact the available programming had on kids. Thus began the push for children’s television to entertain and educate. Shows like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood paved the way for contemporary educational television.
In 1990, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, which required stations airing educational programming geared toward young audiences to limit the duration of advertising to no more than 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and no more than 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. More pioneering programming aired after that.
These programs revolutionized television and shaped generations of young minds who grew up watching them. While some programs have been lost to time, others have soldiered on and some have been rebooted for a new group of kids and nostalgic adults to watch.
Curators at the National Museum of American History celebrate these significant programs in the new exhibit T Is For Television. Large glass cases are filled with items from the The Mickey Mouse Club, The Howdy Doody Show, Bozo the Clown, Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Though the exhibition itself could be larger, it succeeds in its purpose to showcase how children’s television evolved to be both entertaining and educational. The standout items are the ones that feel the most familiar, like a red knit sweater worn by Fred Rogers on a 1970s episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It shares a case with a smiling Oscar the Grouch puppet from around 1989. Across the aisle, there’s a sparkling Mouseketeer hat from Lonnie Burr, an original Mickey Mouse Club cast member from 1955 to 1958.
The items to which the most space is dedicated—nearly an entire glass case—are Bill Nye’s. The D.C. native contributed his trademark lab coat, eccentric bowtie, and a 1998 Daytime Emmy Award to the exhibit—one of the 19 Emmys Bill Nye the Science Guy won during its five-season run.
If you were not one of the people affected by these shows, if they didn’t shape you or color your world in any way, it may be hard to grasp what makes T Is For Television so special. But for those who get it, especially the visitors who pass by the exhibit and feel moved to sing each show’s theme song, seeing these precious items behind glass might make museum-goers wish they could reach out and touch them. It would mean grabbing hold of something long lost: the innocence of youth.
At the National Museum of American History to July 4, 2018. 1300 Constitution Ave. NW. Free. (202) 633-1000. americanhistory.si.edu.