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  • 07.26.17

Everyone Loves Jim Henson, But Few Understand The Scope Of His Creative Genius

A new exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image unpacks the Muppets inventor’s 30-year career.

Your first introduction to  Jim Henson could have been Labyrinth, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, or the Muppet Show. You could’ve fallen in love with Miss Piggy, Kermit, Big Bird, or any of the dozens of characters he gave life to. Regardless of how you first entered his world, it was undoubtedly enchanting once you arrived.

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Henson (1936-1990) was a true luminary who transformed entertainment, experimented with technology, and developed an entire culture around his creative visions. It’s almost impossible to comprehend the depth and complexity of his impact, and to understand exactly what made him into an icon. But The Jim Henson Exhibition, a new permanent installation at the Museum of the Moving Image, succeeds in doing just that thanks to an experience-driven exhibition design done in collaboration with the branding consultancy Collins.

Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog in 1978 on the set of The Muppet Movie. [Photo: courtesy The Jim Henson Company/MoMI/Kermit the Frog © Disney/Muppets]
“This is the first permanent exhibition we’ve ever held that’s devoted to a single maker and of all the makers out there, Jim Henson is the perfect choice because of the universality of his work,” Carl Goodman, the museum’s director, says. “Henson will be a fixture for generations to come, whether or not there is a permanent exhibition dedicated to him; however, in creating one, we can make sure that his story and the actuality of his journey trumps the mythology.”

So how, exactly, do you create the definitive story about the ultimate storyteller? Turns out it involves a small army of curators, exhibition designers, creative directors, and architects; three years of research and planning; fashioning full-scale mock-ups; preserving dozens of crumbling puppets; and a stroke of luck.

Jim Henson’s concept drawing for his proposed “Cyclia” nightclub, an unrealized, multi-media project that he worked on from 1966 to 1970. [Photo: The Jim Henson Company/Museum of the Moving Image]
“When we begin any project, we try to find something magic as the spine of the story,” Brian Collins, cofounder and chief creative officer, tells me during a tour of the exhibition. “And when we began this, we found an incredible quote about Henson that said, his ‘imagination was like lava from a psychedelic volcano.’ That became the spine and through-line for everything that we did.”

Collins and the Museum wanted to transport visitors into Henson’s dynamic imagination, visual world, and creative process. And because this is a permanent exhibition, not a temporary one, they had to think about ways to make the content interesting and accessible to audiences for years to come, and engaging enough that they’d like to return. (The plan is to periodically rotate what’s on view since some of the artifacts are extremely light sensitive.)

The solution involved creating micro-experiences within the whole exhibition that re-create what it might have been like to be inside Henson’s studio working alongside him. There are over 300 pieces on view in the multimedia-rich installation, which was curated by Barbara Miller: stage props, video clips, notebook sketches of experimental never-realized designs, maquettes of sets, archival photos of Henson and his collaborators, prototypes of animatronics, and costumes (including David Bowie’s generously stuffed Jareth the Goblin King suit from Labyrinth). All your favorite Muppets are there, of course, plus dozens you probably haven’t seen before. (The Museum actually launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to fund Muppet restoration and some exhibition details.)

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[Image: © 2017 Collins]
Walking through the space is like taking a journey through Henson’s life. The gallery has an intimate scale and the architecture plays a game of hide-and-reveal through offset niches and blind corners.

“We wanted the rooms to be like hidden caves so you would discover things as you went through,” Collins says of the choreographic approach to the organization.

The zigzagging design was due to practical reasons, too, according to Wendell Walker, deputy director of exhibition design at the Museum. “All of that in the end creates an illusion of the exhibition feeling larger than it is,” he says. “Using the angles, the lighting, and the wall color choices works together to create the illusion.”

Jim Henson’s sketch for Oscar the Grouch, 1969. [Image: © The Jim Henson Company/© 2017, Sesame Workshop/Museum of the Moving Image]

While ephemera and memorabilia are expected in an exhibition like this, the digital and interactive moments aim to connect visitors to Henson’s mind in a deeper way.

In one corner of the exhibition, there’s an area where you can play with a Muppet as if you were a Muppeteer and record a video clip of your performance. In another section, you can become a designer by outfitting an “Anything Muppet” with wigs, stick-on eyes and noses, and accessories–a feature that mimics working Henson’s Creature Shop.

“Henson was really good at was bringing out the good in the people he worked with year after year after year,” Collins says. “We wanted to give a sense of what it would be like to participate.”

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Jim Henson working on the stop-motion film The King of Eight, created for Sesame Street in 1970. [Photo: The Jim Henson Company/Museum of the Moving Image]

Likewise, the Museum of the Moving Image took pages from Henson’s own book and experimented like he would. They couldn’t figure out which episodes of the Muppet Show to play in the exhibition, so a Collins programmer developed an algorithm that would continually loop every single one simultaneously on a projection. In another area, the designers used 3D mapping to turn a flat photograph of a faceted screen Henson designed for an unbuilt nightclub into the real thing.

“They were experimenting with technology and that was such an important part of their work,” Clay Kippen, senior experience designer at Collins, says.

Venturing through the space, there is a lot to discover and inspect, but it’s never overwhelming. Blockbuster exhibitions on popular figures often whet your appetite but ultimately leave you hungry. This one will have you coming back for more. That’s all by design.

“We want people to come in and say, ‘I thought I knew about Jim Henson, but it turns out I didn’t,'” Goodman says. “I came in to have fun, I did, but I left the museum having learned a lot.”

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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