It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights. It’s time to meet the Muppets at Atlanta’s new Worlds of Puppetry Museum. On November 14, the highly anticipated $14 million, 7,500 square foot expansion of the Center for Puppetry Arts will have its grand opening — and the “world’s most comprehensive collection of Jim Henson puppets and artifacts” will highlight Henson’s life and artistic legacy.
“Jim was a genius,” Vincent Anthony, the founder and executive director of the Center for Puppetry Arts, tells Smithsonian.com. “He was not only a genius for puppetry, but for film and television innovation.” One of the collection’s primary objectives, he says, is to celebrate Henson’s talents across the spectrum — as a puppeteer, artist, and forward thinker.
Henson was a strong supporter of the Center for Puppetry Arts during his lifetime. After his death, his family donated over 500 Henson artifacts and the Center decided to expand its Atlanta facility to house them all. While not every piece will be displayed at once, the museum plans to rotate the collection. “Every time you come back, you’ll see something new,” Kelsey Fritz, the Center's exhibitions director, tells Smithsonian.com. Visitors will find about 75 Henson pieces on display and can also explore a reincarnation of the office where Henson illustrated, wrote and animated and an interactive creature shop.
From Fozzie Bear to Fraggles, there’s no way a visitor won’t see one of their favorite characters. But the museum’s staff is most excited to display Henson’s lesser-known puppets, like ones from his early years at the University of Maryland. The oldest piece on display — Omar — dates from Henson’s 1955 show Sam & Friends, which debuted when he was only 18 years old.
The museum will also show puppets from The Dark Crystal. Though the 1982 film was only a modest financial success at the time, it has since gained a cult following — and two of the film’s main characters, Jen and Aughra, can be found in the display. “They are really different from the look and feel of Henson’s more Muppet-y works,” says Fritz.
When Jen and Aughra first came over to the Center, they were in need of a considerable amount of conservation and restoration. “We’ve done an amazing amount of conservation work on these guys. Foam latex is a really brittle material and it doesn’t age well over time. We were actually able to restore the foam to its original state,” says Fritz. In fact, the conservation of the entire Henson collection was a huge undertaking. The Center hired a full-time staff to help restore and conserve all of Henson's puppets to ensure they’ll be around for years to come.
While the Center isn’t ready to announce the exact plans for its November 14 grand opening ceremonies, Anthony says the Henson family will be in attendance and assures it will be a puppet-studded affair. “We are working on a celebrity guest to cut the ribbon,” says Anthony — and it may just be a Muppet holding the scissors.
With this opening, the Museum of Moving Image's new Henson exhibit opening in the winter and a new Muppets incarnation on TV, the Muppets are certainly in the spotlight once again. And that’s exactly where Kermit, Miss Piggy and Jim Henson belong.