Growing Up X: Illinois State Museum’s new exhibit takes aim at the “Forgotten Generation.”
The Illinois State Museum’s ongoing exhibit “Growing Up X” explores societal events while showcasing personal items which defined the 70s, 80s, and 90s eras for thousands of Americans. While well-known toys such as Star Wars figures and the beloved Teddy Ruxpin doll are displayed, significant historical events are never far off, reminding visitors of the generation-defining experiences which occurred during Generation X’s younger years.
Although technological wonders such as the Apple II grew in popularity as a home computer, game systems of the era are still revered. Atari was a common brand, with Pong as its first developed game. Mario, a seemingly ageless character, was Nintendo’s mascot, although he initially appeared alongside Donkey Kong. While VHS allowed for both video recording and playing in the television industry, cassette tapes replaced record players, with the Sony Walkman being a popular yet unofficial term for any portable audio player used.
Book It, a popular literacy program started by the president of Pizza Hut took off during this era. MTV got its start, and performers such as the late Michael Jackson and the still-not-late Madonna found themselves in the spotlight. Bands such as U2, Queen, Pearl Jam, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers also went on to receive international acclaim. Sadly, not all musicians were treated so well. John Lennon’s fatal shooting by a fan in the doorway of his New York City residence was an act that still resonates today among Beatles fans.
During Generation X, Roe v. Wade was legalized by the Supreme Court. This critical ruling granted women the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Another significant event was the Just Say No movement created by the United States Government to expand the War on Drugs. Former President Ronald Reagan vowed to crack down on substance abuse during his time in office. The D.A.R.E. program worked to reduce drug use, and gang and street violence, though studies have shown the long-term effects of the program are overall ineffective.
While the United States participated in the Vietnam War, during its “Cold War” with Russia, Americans found themselves divided. The Vietnam War’s impact on Generation X was one which resulted in soldiers being disrespected upon their return home as well as growing skepticism regarding how much Americans trusted their government.
A positive historic event occurred in the formerly Allied Occupation Zones in Germany, held since World War II when the Berlin Wall was dismantled. The significance may have been overlooked at the time, but the heavily fortified concrete structure divided the city of Berlin, Germany. This wall effectively trapped residents under oppressive Soviet rule, unable to visit their loved ones, aside from passing letters or speaking to each other directly across from one another while standing at the wall. The falling of the Berlin Wall effectively marked the end of the Cold War globally.
Overall, visiting the “Growing Up X” exhibit at the Illinois State Museum was both interesting and educational. As one whose childhood began in the ‘90s, seeing familiar objects on display connected me to an era when life was a bit simpler – the music was loud, and the outfits were colorful. Instead of calling friends on a cellphone, we had to know how to work a rotary phone or keep change for a payphone on hand. A glance down the street told us whose house neighborhood friends were at and – depending on whose bikes were there – if joining would be worthwhile. While technology played a role in our lives, people weren’t tethered to it as they are today.
“Growing Up X” opened on Jan. 28 and will be on display through Sept. 4. The exhibit itself is dedicated to the recently deceased Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko (1972-2023), who had been executive director of the Illinois State Museum since 2019. Her contribution to the display can be found through a selection of mix tapes from her teenage years.