Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men Exhibit – Interview

AMC’s Mad Men has been one of the most acclaimed television series in history with 15 Emmys and four Golden Globe Awards. A period drama set in the 1960s, the series is known for its attention to detail and authenticity along with its comprehensive creative process that leaves no stone unturned. Originally premiering in the summer of 2007, the second half of the final season will premiere on April 5. At the Museum of the Moving Image, a new exhibition offers unique insight into the series’ origins, featuring large-scale sets including Don Draper’s office and kitchen from his Ossining home, as well as items from the show like costumes, props, advertising art, and more. Furthermore, the exhibit provides insight into the series’ origins through personal notes and research material from series creator Matthew Weiner. New York City Monthly spoke recently with exhibition curator Barbara Miller about this exciting new exhibit, which is the first of its kind for the series…

You’ve expressed that the series “has become a cultural touchstone inspiring a renewed interest in a critical time in the country’s history.” How does this exhibit explore that?

I think it’s safe to say that one of the reasons the show is so popular, in addition to the story telling, the character development, and the basic structure of the series is that I think people are really interested in the period that it evoked. It makes you, as a viewer, kind of rethink what we know about “the 60s” which is usually so associated with flower power and youth culture. This exhibit is so much more of a look at the men and women who entered that decade as adults who were not teenagers in 1967-1968, but rather working men and women who were the real architects of that era.

Is there significance to the order of the layout of the exhibition?

We really wanted to hook our story onto what Matthew Weiner’s approach to developing these ideas and the series were, and we want our visitors to be steeped in that as they then move through the familiar costumes, props, and everything else so they get a sense of where it all comes from and how it was born in the imagination.  So what we’ve put in that initial area are books that Matt Weiner read at various points that seemed so interesting to him, film clips from movies that he felt were really important to shaping his visual and thematic approach to Mad Men, and journal notes he wrote in the 90s where he tried to synthesize a lot of these ideas.

On display is an installation featuring the writers’ room. What do you think visitors will find most interesting here?

We thought it was great to give people a sense of what that [room] looked like, how they diagramed scenes up on a white board and what it felt like to be in that room. It also gave us an opportunity to talk about the incredible historical research that was done [for] writers to draw upon for story inspirations or the specificity of the setting for each episode. 

How did Mad Men set itself apart from other series or films that also represent this time and through what storytelling elements was that achieved?

Matthew Weiner was so committed to not only making sure the stories were authentic, both emotionally and narratively, but I think there was such a commitment to that authenticity and the development of those characters that they seem very relatable and imperfect, as we all are. Working on this exhibition and being able to start doing so before they wrapped production, having the opportunity to meet with the department heads and the various creative people that were involved in the series, it was just really extraordinary how committed everybody was to making this really great. 

How does this exhibit represent the mission of the museum? Were there any challenges you faced while working on this project?

Our mission is really about drawing the curtain back and letting people have a sense of what goes on behind the scenes. It’s really a perfect fit for us. There were a lot of logistical challenges in moving entire sets from Los Angeles to New York and putting them together in a way that was convincing. That was definitely a challenge – getting it here and putting it together and making it look great. If it didn’t look great, it wouldn’t be fun to look at.

What will visitors who are not regular viewers of the show find compelling about this collection?

They’re hearing a story that we’re telling. We don’t have “Mad Men” up on the third floor of the museum, we have an exhibition about the creative process. So I think that that is relevant for anybody to see – it’s certainly not just for existing fans of the show.

(Photo: Thanassi Karageorgiou / Museum of the Moving Image)