Puppets Take Center Stage at the Smithsonian

New Display Examines the Influence of Puppets on American Culture
December 13, 2013
News Release

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open the new display “Puppetry in America” Dec. 13, featuring several Jim Henson puppet characters, the namesake puppet from The Howdy Doody Show and many other classic figures. The 30-foot-long display will examine the impact puppets have had on American culture over time.

Often used as both a teaching method and a form of entertainment, puppetry is an ancient storytelling tradition adopted by colonial Americans. The museum’s nine-section display will give visitors a chance to see many popular puppet characters spanning several generations; each section will showcase a different type of puppet: finger puppets, hand puppets, marionettes, paper puppets, rod puppets, hand-rod puppets, shadow puppets, slow motion puppets and ventriloquist puppets.

“‘Puppetry in America’ is the type of display that resonates with people from many different generations and backgrounds,” said John Gray, director of the museum. “It shares the creative and whimsical side of America, which is an essential part to our identity as a nation.”

The art of puppetry relies on the harmonious relationship of three partners: a puppet, a wildly imaginative puppeteer who manipulates the puppet and an audience whose willing suspension of disbelief allows it to accept the puppet’s actions as “real.” Visitors can learn about the complexities of puppetry and the different types of puppets—such as shadow puppets, hand puppets and marionettes—that brought the puppet shows to life. A few of the figures on display include the 1936 ventriloquist puppet, Charlie McCarthy; the cast from Jim Henson’s 1955 TV show Sam and Friends, which includes an early version of Kermit; Captain Kangaroo’s Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit; and characters from the 2005 stop-motion film, Corpse Bride. The objects will be displayed in chronological order, allowing the visitor to see the transitions in puppetry along with some of America’s most-loved characters.

“American puppetry is unique,” said Dwight Blocker Bowers, museum curator. “Its many styles and techniques combine ancient and immigrant traditions with homegrown innovations and the influences of electronic media.”

Puppetry is among the oldest practices of performance art in America. The earliest traditions were imitations of “old world” methods brought to this country by immigrants from Italy, France and Great Britain. Itinerant 18th- and 19th-century American puppeteers commonly constructed puppets and stages for portability as they moved from town to town, performing anywhere from formal theaters to the spontaneous atmospheres of taverns, city-street corners and fairs. Later, toward the 20th century, the audiences traveled to established vaudeville stages to see puppets of all kinds, including the Asian-inspired shadow puppets. Beginning in the 1930s, radio and later TV, provided wider audiences for America’s most well-known puppets and puppeteers, and new techniques developed to match the immediacy afforded by the microphone and camera. With the advances in computer graphics and digital manipulations, the art and techniques of puppetry have gone through many changes; yet despite these alterations, puppetry continues to be an important form of storytelling in America.

Through its collections, research and public outreach, the National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future. The museum is currently renovating its west exhibition wing, developing galleries on business, democracy and culture. For more information, visit http://americanhistory.si.edu. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.

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