SCHAUMBURG, IL—The Museum of the Middle Class, featuring historical and anthropological exhibits addressing the socioeconomic category that once existed between the upper and lower classes, opened to the public Monday.
"The splendid and intriguing middle class may be gone, but it will never be forgotten," said Harold Greeley, curator of the exhibit titled "Where The Streets Had Trees' Names." "From their weekend barbecues at homes with backyards to their outdated belief in social mobility, the middle class will forever be remembered as an important part of American history."
Museum guests expressed delight over the traditions and peculiarities of the middle class, a group once so prevalent that entire TV networks were programmed to satisfy its hunger for sitcoms.
"It's fascinating to think that these people once drove the same streets as we do today," said Natasha Ohman, a multi-millionaire whose husband's grandfather invented the trigger-safety lock on handguns. "I enjoyed learning how the middle class lived, what their customs were, and what sorts of diversions and entertainment they enjoyed. Being part of this middle class must have been fascinating!"
During the modern industrial age, the middle class grew steadily, reaching its heyday in the 1950s, when its numbers soared into the tens of millions. According to a study commissioned by the U.S. Census Bureau, middle-class people inhabited great swaths of North America, with settlements in the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, and even the nation's urban centers.
"No one predicted the disappearance of the middle class," said Dr. Bradford Elsby, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "The danger of eliminating workers' unions, which had protected the middle class from its natural predators for years, was severely underestimated. We believe that removal of the social safety net, combined with rapid political-climate changes, made life very difficult for the middle class, and eventually eradicated it altogether."
One of the 15 permanent exhibits, titled "Working For 'The Weekend,'" examines the routines of middle-class wage-earners, who labored for roughly eight hours a day, five days a week. In return, they were afforded leisure time on Saturdays and Sundays. According to many anthropologists, these "weekends" were often spent taking "day trips,"eating at chain family restaurants, or watching "baseball" with the nuclear family.
"Unlike members of the lower class, middle-class people earned enough money in five days to take two days off to 'hang out,'" said Benson Watercross, who took a private jet from his home in Aspen to visit the museum. "Their adequate wages provided a level of comfort and stability, and allowed them to enjoy diversions or purchase goods, thereby briefly escaping the mundanity."
Many museum visitors found the worldview of the middle class—with its reliance on education, stable employment, and ample pensions—difficult to comprehend.
Thirty-five Booker T. Washington Junior High School seventh-graders, chosen from among 5,600 students who asked to attend the school's annual field trip, visited the museum Tuesday. Rico Chavez, a 14-year-old from the inner-city Chicago school, said he was skeptical of one exhibit in particular.
"They expect us to believe this is how people lived 10 years ago?" Chavez asked. "That 'Safe, Decent Public Schools' part was total science fiction. No metal detectors, no cops or dogs, and whole classes devoted to art and music? Look, I may have flunked a couple grades, but I'm not that stupid."
Others among the 99 percent of U.S. citizens who make less than $28,000 per year shared Chavez's sense of disbelief.
"Frankly, I think they're selling us a load of baloney," said laid-off textile worker Elsie Johnson, who visited the museum Tuesday with her five asthmatic children. "They expect us to believe the government used to help pay for college? Come on. The funniest exhibit I saw was 'Visiting The Family Doctor.' Imagine being able to choose your own doctor and see him without a four-hour wait in the emergency room. Gimme a friggin' break!"
While some were incredulous, others described the Museum of the Middle Class as "a trip down memory lane." William Harrison, a retired social worker with middle-class heritage, said he was moved to tears by several of the exhibits.
"You wouldn't know it to look at me, but my parents were middle class," Harrison said. "Even though my family fell into poverty, I cherish those roots. Seeing that section on middle-class eating habits really brought it all back: the Tuna Helper, the Capri Sun, and the cookie dough in tubes. Oh, and the 2-percent milk and reduced-cholesterol butter spread! I was thankful for the chance to rediscover my past, even if the middle class is gone forever."
The Museum of the Middle Class was funded primarily by the Ford Foundation, the charitable arm of the Ford automotive company, which sold cars to the middle class for nearly 100 years.