Clark helps open door to the worlds of puppetry

There were several things that took Bradford Clark by surprise upon his final walk-through before festivities for the Nov. 14 opening of the Center for Puppetry Arts' Worlds of Puppetry Museum, in Atlanta. One was the sheer size of the bright green new addition to the center, and the other was visitors’ emotional reaction to the Henson puppets — familiar characters like Miss Piggy and Elmo.

“Even though I’d been involved in the planning since the beginning, walking through and seeing it all in place, I thought, ‘This is massive!’” said Clark, the center’s consulting curator of collections and BGSU theater and film faculty member.

“And I was surprised by how strong the emotional connection of the visitors to the puppets was,” he added.

The opening of the aptly named museum was the culmination of nearly 10 years of planning, preparation and fund-raising that had weathered the financial crisis of 2008 and continued forward.

In addition to Clark, BGSU also has a second connection to the puppetry center. Director of development Amy Edgar Davis, who was the BGSU director of annual giving from 2000-05, has been with the puppetry center for the last three years.

“I’ve been here for the ‘wrap up,’” she said. “It was a challenge, and all the funding has come from foundations and private support. It’s so much fun to work for an organization like this. Many cities have a museum or a symphony or a zoo, but not many cities have a puppetry center, and certainly not one as comprehensive as this. It’s always had a three-pronged mission: museum (even before the new building), performance and education. It’s never veered off track.”

Planning involved the input of international participants, including the Burbank, Calif.-based Thinkwell Group design and production company. The creator of such attractions as London’s “The Making of Harry Potter” studio tour, Thinkwell was engaged to help design the space and make it a family-friendly experience.

“I provided the content and interpretation and they used their expertise to present it in a family-friendly format,” Clark said. “We were very involved in talking through design ideas.”

On display are 175 puppets in the Global Collection Gallery and 75 in the Henson Gallery, from among the center’s collection of many thousands. “The new galleries and cases are designed to be flexible so that the displays can rotate and people can always see something new,” Clark said.

In planning the Henson wing of the museum, Clark worked closely Karen Falk, archivist for the Jim Henson Company, who provided all the images for the galleries; with the Henson family, especially daughter Cheryl, president of the Jim Henson Foundation, and with staff and administrators of The Center for Puppetry Arts to make sure the Henson story was told accurately and in a way that was important to the family.

“It was a positive collaboration,” Clark said. “They were kind and honest and willing to tell the story as it was. Whenever we needed anything from the family collection or the archives, we had it almost instantly. They were very involved all the way through, sometimes saying, ‘We need a family photo,’ or ‘We should have an Emmy there.’ They were amazingly generous. What was exciting was seeing their happiness with it and knowing we’d done it justice.”

The opening drew the attention of media including CNN, as what was already the major puppetry center in the U.S. more than doubled its size, to 15,000 square feet, with room for the galleries and support spaces. On hand for the opening of the $14 million new building were Henson family members (Cheryl Henson cut the ribbon with Kermit’s help) and luminaries such as Bonnie Erickson, who built the original Miss Piggy and other characters and is now trustee of the Henson Legacy, which was established by Jim Henson's wife, Jane, as a way of promoting awareness of his work through exhibitions and other events.

“Bonnie posed the puppets in their cases, and nobody can do that better than the person who made so many of them,” Clark said.

The inspired zaniness of some of Jim Henson’s puppets is complemented by the even bigger Global Collection Gallery, which presents puppetry from around the world, from the rare and hauntingly beautiful South Korean puppets to Native American puppets inspired by traditional performance to equally rare footage of Iranian puppetry.

“We received very generous support from international artists and scholars,” Clark said. “They checked our texts, granted permission to use photos and footage, and even made last-minute gifts, including a new figure from Cuba.”

Clark, whose research centers on international puppetry, loves it all and is gratified by the opportunity the museum provides “to reclaim cultural practices that may have been lost. “

“It presents comprehensive world culture through the view of puppetry, and it’s an unexpected experience for our visitors,” he said. “In the first two weeks we had almost 10,000 visitors, and I think people came to see the Henson puppets and then were surprised by the global collection. I’m glad we can draw more people in.”

“It’s such a leap from the collection of the ’90s,” Davis said. “It’s a real eye-opener for people.”

Nancy Staub, founder of the museum and the global collection, commissioned many of the puppets for the new museum, including the Native American pieces and two Maori figures.

“There are new things and things of great cultural specificity that haven’t been seen before in the United States,” said Clark, whose contributions can be seen throughout, from research materials on puppets around the world he has gathered during his extensive field work to text and interpretation for the displays. He even added a carving he made of the face of a Brazilian Mamulengo puppet as a touchable interactive piece.

And because the center also houses two theaters for its own shows and touring companies, “we can also show puppets in a performance context as they were meant to be used, and not just as pretty objects on display,” he said, explaining that the museum puppets are never used in performance and are handled only with gloved hands.

Clark became involved with the puppetry center in 2002-03 when he worked there during a sabbatical year from BGSU. A conversation was begun about expanding the puppetry center, founded in 1978 by Vincent Anthony, to include a museum and additional space for teaching and conservation.

With a planning grant from a National Endowment for the Humanities in 2006, the group began to plan in earnest. Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter and founder of Ibex Puppetry, joined them, and there was discussion about a possible gift of objects from the Henson family collection. The Hensons wanted to make sure the collection was divided among the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the city where Jim Henson got his start on TV; the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, where “Sesame Street” was based, and the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, so more people would be able to enjoy them.

During the planning process, Clark curated and designed three preview exhibitions: “Jim Henson: A Man and His Frog,” “Jim Henson: Puppeteer,” about characters he had performed; and “Jim Henson: Wonders from His Workshop,” on innovations in puppetry by Henson, which opened in fall 2008.

The new Henson wing includes non-Sesame Street puppets from other innovative productions Henson was involved in, such as “Labyrinth,” “Dark Crystal” and “Fraggle Rock.”

“The conservators had to do primary research to learn how to preserve and revive materials like foam latex that were originally meant to last no longer than the filming,” Clark said. “They did beautiful work and developed new conservator practices.”

Now that the museum is open, there’s no “resting on our laurels,” Clark said. He and his colleagues are already planning the next phase — a special exhibits space to open in a year.