“Exhibit Piece” was published in If in August 1954. It can be found in Second Variety and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick in pp. 155–166.
George Miller, dressed in an anachronistic mid-twentieth century suit, takes a robotic pubtrain to his office at the History Agency. When he arrived Controller Fleming scolds him for insisting on dressing like the period he studies. He defends his strange actions as an effort to develop empathy for the period. Fleming, however, is worried that his eccentricities will be noticed by the Board, which insists on total cultural homogeneity. People are no longer able to speak their mind and express their individuality. Miller gets to work on his exhibit of 1950s America, when he hears someone in the exhibit. He thinks it may be someone higher up from the Board, trying to find some small historical inaccuracy to discredit him and his work. He enters the exhibit, admiring its incredible detail and accuracy. This accuracy was made possible by careful use of temporal scanners that allowed him to look back at the 1950s directly. From the kitchen he hears a woman’s laughter. Inside he sees a woman who claims to be his wife. The house also has children. The woman begins asking Miller about a variety of concerns: their son’s hayfever, his upcoming camping trip, and Miller’s work at United Electronic Supply. The woman’s name is Marjorie. They live in the suburbs of San Francisco. Miller can look out on the bay. Miller begins to actually worry about his relationship with his boss Davidson and his progress on the Throckmorton account. Morphing into his role as the father of this household, he takes on certain memories and worried. He tells his wife he is going to see a psychiatrist.
Miller is at the office of Adam Grumberg, a psychiatrist. He tries to explain the confusion he felt when bringing in the newspaper. Apparently that was when the time shift took place. He suggests that Grumberg is just a part of a history exhibit at the History Agency, hundreds of years in the future. He confesses to Grumberg that he hates his work in the History Agency, especially his superiors. Grumberg tries to work Miller through the events that led to his feeling of disruption. If he can find the exact place the change took place he can cross over it and see what happens. Only one of the worlds can be true. Miller concludes the opposite, that both worlds are real. He returns to his home and crosses back over the railing and remerges in the History building. Fleming comes to see Miller again. Miller begins lighting a tobacco pipe that he brought from his home in the past. They have tobacco in the past. Fleming’s period, the Hellenistic period, is not so desirable since it had a low life expectancy. Miller tells Fleming that his period is quite healthy, he had a wife and two children, and the state does not yet have total power. He decides to go to the 1950s. The Director of the History office arrives and threatens Miller with euthanasia. He also threatens to destroy the exhibit, despite its stunning accuracy. He is confident that since the exhibit is a time gate, he will not be destroyed if they dismantle the exhibit. He sits down on the easy chair with a can of beer and begins reading the newspaper, with the headlines predicting total world destruction due to the Russian development of a Cobalt bomb.
In “Exhibit Piece” we have both a clear explanation for George Miller’s transition between two competing realities and a twist ending that leaves some question of the character’s future. Miller is—due to his historical research—an anachronism. He wants to live in the period that he studies. His obsession is so complete that he even tries talking like the people from the 1950s. An opposite interpretation is that he is from the 1950s and travels to the future to work during the day. Both explain the fact that he is equally functional (we would not say “at home”) in both time periods. The reason for this is that somehow the historical exhibit created a time gate between the two periods. The threat of Miller’s employer to destroy the exhibit creates the ambiguous ending. Since in the original timeline, it does not appear that the Earth was destroyed by the use of Cobalt bombs, Miller reading that news from his easy chair may be the result of the efforts by the History office to dismantle the exhibit. In this case, the reality may be closer to a delusion created by Miller based on his desire to live in the 1950s. This ending undermines the time gate theory but is a bit more satisfying for me because it allows us to explore the question of what drove Miller to a total break with reality.
Miller’s world is objectively horrible, but very few people seem to appreciate just how horrific it is. The government uses its power to enforce complete cultural homogeneity. It is not explained why this it, but one reason seems to be the fulfillment of a well-functioning workplace. The day-to-day guards for conformity is the workplace. Miller is first confronted by his co-worker, then his boss. His boss then threatens to get the government involved only where these pressures fail. It is striking, given the critiques of mass society popular in the 1950s, that Miller remembers the 1950s as a golden age of individualism and personal expression. This only reinforces how horribly homogenous the world has become. Fleming is brutally honest: “You’re a political-social unit herein this society. Take warning, Miller. The Board had reports on your eccentricities.” Miller replies to his friend: “You’re nothing but a minor bureaucrat in a vast machine. You’re a function of an impersonal cultural totality. You have no standards of your own. In the twentieth century men had personal standards of workmanship. Artistic craft. Pride of accomplishment. These words mean nothing to you. You have no soul—another concept from the golden age of the twentieth-century when men were free and could speak their minds.” (156) This tension between craft and progress that is very similar to the one explored in the character of Thomas Cole in “The Variable Man”
Wikipedia page for “Exhibit Piece.”