Lunchbox exhibit puts spotlight on art and design

More than 500 lunchboxes on display at the Durham Museum in Omaha
Pure Nebraska
Published: May. 17, 2023 at 10:07 AM CDT|Updated: May. 17, 2023 at 10:20 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (KOLN) - A display of more than 500 lunchboxes at the Durham Museum in Omaha not only triggers feelings of nostalgia, but also provides insight into the production of lunchboxes through the years.

Mark Kelehan is the man who has collected the lunchboxes, and done all of the research into their production and history. He is the creator of the current exhibit at the Durham Museum called “The Lunchbox: Packed with Pop Culture.” We visited with Kelehan recently at the museum about this endeavor.

“I’ve been collecting lunchboxes for 30 years now,” Kelehan said. “I started when I picked up a single Pac Man lunchbox at a flea market in Omaha when I was attending Creighton University. I grew up in Germany. My dad was in the army. When I saw the Pac Man lunchbox, it reminded me of my childhood, playing games and so forth. It got me on the path of saying, what else is out there? I went to the bookstore, looked at price guides, and saw just how many lunchboxes were made. That set me on my quest to go out and buy more. I started hunting around at flea markets, garage sales, and antique malls, all before Ebay. When Ebay came around, it became easy to buy up anything, so the thrill of the hunt was gone. But, I started to evolve a little bit in my collecting tastes, and found things like original artwork that was used to make the lunchbox, and original production material. From there, I started doing more research just to understand the stories and history of lunchboxes. When I pieced all of that together, I said, what am I going to do with this? I thought a museum exhibit was the right way to tell this story.”

The exhibit Kelehan has put together is unique. “What makes it different is there’s never been an exhibit done that explores the history, the insights and production processes of lunchboxes,” Kelehan said. “All of the original artwork that I’ve accumulated in my collecting over the last 30 years has never been on display before. These are original paintings that were made by illustrators of the firms. These are one-of-a-kind items, and based on my research, 80% of it has been destroyed. The remaining pieces are partly in the Smithsonian’s archives where I do research. But the largest amount of these items is in private hands, and it’s my collection. That’s been something I’ve been very passionate about, and that’s why this display is different. You get to see the original artwork that was done to make the G.I. Joe lunchbox, the Knight Rider lunchbox, or even the Street Hawk lunchbox. We are very excited about this being included. I have all of the artifacts from the original photos from the Street Hawk show that were sent from the producers to Aladdin. They used the photos to render concept art for the lunchbox for approvals and so forth. Once it passed through that gate, it became a painting that was done by an illustrator, and once that was signed off on, they went through and the did production sheets and proof sheets. Ultimately the final lunchbox was made. I’m lucky enough to have all of those artifacts here on display. I think it’s cool to see how all of this was made back in the 70′s and 60′s before the digital age. It’s exciting, and tells a lot about the history of manufacturing in the United States.”

The exhibit is now on display at the Durham Museum and will be there through September 3. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday from Noon to 4 p.m., and it’s closed on Mondays. During the summer, from June through August, the museum will be open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday from Noon to 4 p.m., and Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.