Push a button and a light behind John Huston’s portrait glows red.
What does that color suggest about the film director’s alleged communist sympathies during the Cold War?
Visitors to the Truman Library’s new exhibit, “Spies, Lies and Paranoia: Americans in Fear,” will be invited to test their knowledge of Huston and other possible communist homefront subversion — but smile at the same time.
The show, which opens Saturday, summons the dread some felt during the late 1940s and 1950s as Americans worried about subversives in their midst in the context of an atomic standoff with the Soviet Union.
“We look at the 1950s as a calm golden age, but we forget there was a palpable fear of war,” said Clay Bauske, Truman Library’s curator. “It was a scary time.”
But the displays also reveal something new for a Truman Library exhibit: a winking sense of humor.
One example is the flimsy “decoder device” visitors are handed. To use the gadget, which recalls a premium found in a box of cereal during the Cold War, visitors are encouraged to hold it Sherlock Holmes-style at several wall-mounted stations to discern various numbers or equations and then bring those clues to a “decoding wheel” and then puzzle out a “secret message.”
Adults attempting this may find it difficult to maintain dignity, as the stations are mounted at a 10-year-old’s eye level.
“The catchphrase I’ve been using for the exhibit is ‘sinister but fun,’ ” said Bauske, adding that the idea was to attract a different Truman Library demographic. “I wanted to appeal to families that might not typically come to a museum like ours.
“It’s a serious topic, but the approach is more of a fun romp through the period.”
Visitors enter through a passageway in which archival Cold War era photographs are projected juxtaposed with screen grabs from several 1950s horror movie trailers.
A wall-sized portrait of communist-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy could appear on one side, with actor Kevin McCarthy, star of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” on the other.
“As someone who grew up during the Cold War, I appreciate the power of diversion,” said Ed Autry, the Truman Library audiovisual technician who collected the images. “When the fear of reality grows too great, you must have an outlet.”
Added Bauske: “One way to escape fear was to substitute space aliens for communists.”
One display does just that, presenting visitors with a vertical series of revolving cubes that — when manipulated a certain way — tops off a space alien torso with the head of Soviet strongman Josef Stalin.
Anther display, devoted to artifacts of espionage, includes a strap-on necktie camera used by the KGB. But it also includes a smatchet, a large knife with a broad blade treated with a dark coating to render it almost invisible at night.
Several exhibits are interactive, such as one inviting visitors to ponder whether director Huston was guilty or innocent of communist subversion.
Huston, according to the display’s text, was innocent, although he was sufficiently disgusted by Hollywood blacklisting that he moved to Ireland. Others, such as scientists Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall, passed on American atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
Several institutions loaned artifacts to the Truman Library for the exhibit. The Cold War Museum in Virginia forwarded vintage Civil Defense supplies, including boxes of crackers and barrels of drinking water.
That display may be the most sobering, said Andrew Luce, 22, a Ball State University student and Truman Library intern.
“I’ve never had to worry about having to store big jugs of reserve water,” he said.
Other items are from the Truman Library’s collection. Those include a telegram from McCarthy to President Harry Truman summarizing his 1950 speech in which he accused the State Department of harboring communists.
“Your telegram is not only not true and an insolent approach to a situation that should have been worked out between man and man, but it shows conclusively that you are not even fit to have a hand in the operation of the Government of the United States,” Truman wrote in reply.
The letter has the notation “File” inscribed at its top.
“We presume a final version was never sent,” Bauske said.