A period room for all seasons: Action Comics #1 in the DAR Museum

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The goal of the education department at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum is to diversify conversations in the period rooms beyond craft and collecting to include more American history and culture. In that pursuit, we added an additional interpretive layer to the Indiana Period Room with objects of distinct cultural and popular culture significance that have led to broader interpretive changes throughout the organization. The introduction of a facsimile edition of Action Comics #1 helped staff, docents, and visitors use familiar iconography to bring more diverse stories to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum.

Photograph of the Indiana Period Room at the DAR museum. It is set up as a formal living room, with a large fireplace on one wall. Various pieces of furniture such as a sofa, chairs, coffee table, and magazine rack.

The Indiana Period Room at the DAR Museum. Photo credit: Mark Gruenwald for the DAR Museum.


The reinterpretation of the Indiana Period Room began with the addition of a bronze samovar, a Russian hot water urn for tea, placed prominently on a coffee table in the center of the room. Curator of Historic Interiors, Patrick Sheary, intended this piece to spur new discussions about immigration in America by looking at how this object of social ceremony became more prominent after a rise in Russian immigration during the early twentieth century. As we endeavor to make the narratives in these rooms less homogenous, the samovar, also central in Jewish homes of that region, serves as a catalyst for telling stories of immigration and Jewish narratives in the room.

After the purchase of the samovar, the museum acquired a small, silver hanukkiah from the same period. This hanukkiah is seasonally placed in the Indiana Room to celebrate Hanukkah as other rooms in the building celebrate Christmas, Lunar New Year, and other winter holidays. These additions were well-received by visitors and docents, but we wanted to find yet another way to increase the connection to Jewish history in the room throughout the year.

Last year, we placed a facsimile copy of Action Comics #1, the debut of Superman, in the room. Superman was created by Jerome (Jerry) Seigel and Joe Shuster. Both were young Jewish men, Seigel from Ohio and Shuster from Toronto, children of immigrants from Europe, and had been struggling for success in the newspaper industry. These two creatives led the popularization of a new medium, and the creation of a new genre within, but distinct from, science fiction and fantasy.

For the curators, the comic helped to continue themes of immigration and cultural influences. As an educator, I wanted a new and familiar tool that would provide a more personal connection to the important developments of the time. We were worried, however, about how this would be received. Often, inclusion of popular culture into historical conversations is regarded as frivolous by traditional academics as well as audiences and stakeholders who expect to have “serious conversations” in museums. On the other hand, there are calls to bring more play and discovery into museums by historian Sarah Carter and in Kate Preissler’s evergreen “Free range kids: museums at play.” Museums are looking to develop more personality in their online and community presence, and in doing so have increasingly utilized popular culture.

As the DAR Museum has expanded its social media content to include reflections on popular film and music, and has varied our tone by bringing levity to public programs, visitor response has included dismissive reactions, such as, “What does this have to do with the DAR?” and “Where are the quilts?” We wanted to introduce the comic book into the space to have fun, but also to have serious conversations about early twentieth-century culture, antisemitism, and immigration. We’ve also had conversations to dispel some of the “othering” that casually occurs when discussing Jewish lives in America. Visitors have asked, “Were there Jews in Indiana in the 1930s?” Of course there were. We also can dispel myths around comic books, namely that they were written for ten-year-olds. These comics were not made expressly for children. They were sold on magazine racks for anybody who wanted to read short, illustrated fiction. In the 1930s, comic circulation was close to one million issues a month, with Action Comics leading sales.

A photo of the Indiana Period Room, set as a 1930s living room. This photo focuses on the coffee table with a tea set and samovar on it.

The samovar in situ in the Indiana Period Room. Photo credit: Mark Gruenwald for the DAR Museum


From observation of docent-led tours, we have seen an increase in docents’ utilization of the Indiana Room over other twentieth-century spaces since the introduction of the comic book. The docents are using the comic book to discuss the beginning of the modern era and the impact of immigration from regions other than western Europe on American culture. We’ve also had visitation from Jewish communities in the D.C. area that were touched and surprised by the objects in the Indiana Room. One visitor attending an after-hours event hosted by a local Jewish heritage group remarked that they were surprised that we devoted funds to acquire objects of Jewish history, summing up: “Good for you, DAR.”

The initial clash in the room—of colonial revival interior with its high-backed chairs and mahogany furniture with this bright and colorful magazine—adds life and a sense of character that visitors have responded well to, with one docent stating, “It’s hard to remember that these people are also reading these sorts of things or listening to music that I would recognize.” Visitors who lack the personal nostalgia that older visitors often feel in the Indiana Room can still connect to the era and the content by seeing the origins of their own popular culture.

This successful reinterpretation of the Indiana Room has set a new expectation for how we utilize other spaces in the building. With only a few small additions, we are greatly expanding the narratives docents and staff share in the Indiana Room. We have been encouraged by our various stakeholders to continue this trend in other spaces in the building: using the Missouri Room to talk about the experience of free persons of color in the mid-nineteenth century; utilizing the Louisiana Gallery to discuss the unique cultural makeup and expression of Louisiana; and grounding foodways in the history of enslavement in the North Carolina Room.

Our programming and partnerships are expanding to marginalized groups in our city as we increasingly create an atmosphere where our local audiences know their history is valued in this museum. Our second annual Lunar New Year festival this year, inspired by the interpretation of AAPI history in the California Room, has led to historically high winter visitation. Programming has continued to explore popular culture, from Christmas films, to fashion in horror movies, to West Virginia’s Mothman. These topics lend themselves to fun, but also explore discrimination in American industry, public memory, and the struggle to maintain American infrastructure.

As the museum was working towards more inclusive narratives in the period rooms, Superman came to save the day by providing a recognizable cultural icon that we could bond over, and a symbol with sufficient depth of meaning to inspire critical and complex conversations about the past.

“And on my soul . . . I swear, until my dream of a world where dignity, honor and justice becomes the reality we all share—I’ll never stop fighting. Ever.” Action Comics #775

~Kevin Lukacs is the Curator of Education at the DAR Museum. He works with the curatorial staff, DAR membership, and community partners to develop programming, exhibits, and interpretation that celebrates the diversity of American history and culture.


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