I never know what to expect when I walk into a museum. Who is the target audience, and will I be out of place? Is the topic too narrow or too wide, will I end up bored? The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA is the case in point: It sounds like it’s for kids, and it sounds like a weirdly narrow topic, but actually it’s perfect for anyone. I’m pretty sure it’s my new favorite museum, actually. Somehow because of the subject matter, “walk around and look at stuff” becomes the best afternoon ever.
Of course, good presentation is just as important, but I’ll get to that. The Center for Puppetry Arts has two main galleries: The Jim Henson Collection and the Global Collection.
The Jim Henson Collection
The Jim Henson galleries follow Henson’s career in a general chronological order, from his early puppet commercials through Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and eventually movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. There are original notes staged on corkboards, plenty of actual puppets, and perhaps most importantly video from the early productions. Every time I thought “Gee, I wish I could see that in action,” there’s a video. Fun fact: The concept behind Sesame Street was to “sell” basic education to kids using the same techniques Henson had used to sell products in his commercials.
I particularly loved the mock workroom with displays showing how Henson made his puppets. I learned a lot about not only the materials, but the ideas behind puppet styles and how they’re made more expressive. I actually felt like I learned a lot in this whole exhibit, and that holds true for the Global Collection as well, but it’s fully integrated into the fun museum experience. Hands-on elements are included as needed, again seamlessly enriching and educating at the same time. Additional fun fact: The puppets are made slightly cross-eyed, because that way it seems like they’re focusing on you/the camera.
Never fear, Fraggle Rock and some other projects get their fair share of attention too. There are only a few Labyrinth and items on display, but an entire exhibit about the movie opens this weekend, September 2… I love that the final wall, which instructs visitors to design their own puppets on post-it notes, has become an impromptu shrine to David Bowie.
The Global Collection
The Global Collection looks at puppets all around the world, from the first “are these puppets?” stone artifacts, to regional puppet-theater styles, to modern movies and stage productions. The gallery is packed with stuff, but it’s perfectly balanced down a long, thin room. Every time you turn around there’s something awesome and new to explore, but you don’t feel overwhelmed or like you’re missing corners. Each section is fascinating in its own right, but you can also make links between different styles and appreciate a staggering diversity of approaches all at the same time.
Just like with the Jim Henson Collection, I felt like I was playing, but walked out realizing I’d been spontaneously educated somewhere along the way. There’s history, cultural studies, art and performance, the technology of puppetry for the stage and the screen… Again, videos and interactives pop up every time it crosses your mind to want them. Try out some marionettes, feel some textures, watch traditional performers in action. One of the most effective is a video with a single knob, and as you turn it you can see claymation clips frame by frame. Speed it up, slow it down, go backwards… It’s so simple, but you don’t just see a sample and then forget it. You leave with an understanding, because you got to control it yourself.
My favorite: The Vietnamese Mua Roi Nuoc theater just fascinates me. It happens in a pool of waist-deep water, where performers stand behind a set and use underwater rods to manipulate floating puppets in front. IT’S SO COOL I CAN’T EVEN.
I honestly had no idea how wide and rich a topic “puppets” would be, but the whole museum is a magical wonderland. I’d return again and again, because I’m quite sure I’d notice something new every time.
Extras & Coming Soon
The brand-new Labyrinth exhibit opens this weekend, don’t miss it!
If you’re not in the Atlanta area, there are online collections!
The gift shop is well-appointed! I think I wanted some more unique you-can-only-get-it-here type stuff, but there are plenty of puppets, some Sesame Street merchandise items, and various other topic-appropriate things to take home.
And finally, it’s not just a museum, it’s a theater too. There are puppet shows for kids, puppet shows for adults, puppet-movie screenings, and more. Museum tickets start at $10.50, but there are various combos available that’ll include tours, workshops, events, etc., so check all that out to plan your best trip.
Verdict: Take your kids, take your friends, take yourself! It’s awesome!