Monday, April 19, 2010

Displaying Archives in Exhibits

This past weekend, I attended the Jim Henson's Fantastic World exhibit at the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington, Massachusetts. First off, I must say that it was a fabulous exhibit and was fun for the whole family. It is traveling courtesy of the Smithsonian, Jim Henson Company, the Biography Channel and others. We went on the rainy Saturday of Patriot's Day weekend.

Those of you not from New England should probably be told that "Patriot's Day" is a Massachusetts aberration that celebrates the preliminary battles of the Revolutionary War. And, yes, there are people trying to get the Federal government to declare this a national holiday. For now, we just have to celebrate in Massachusetts with the Boston Marathon, a ballgame at Fenway (that combined with the marathon makes for nightmare traffic,) and numerous battlefield re-enactors wandering the streets carrying bayonets. The Museum even has a sign on the door that says something to the effect of "no bayonets allowed inside," which seems totally random and strange unless you are aware of the local culture during this weekend...oh yeah, and only odd if you didn't see the redcoat passing the patriot in the parking lot to get your initial shock out of the way...

The exhibit "features 100 original artworks, including drawings, cartoons and storyboards that illustrate Henson's talent as a storyteller and visionary. Among the variety of exhibition objects are puppets and television and movie props, photographs of Henson and his collaborators at work and original video productions, including excerpts from Henson's early career and experimental films."

(Bert, Ernie and rubber duckie were there!)

As we made our way around the circular exhibit -- about which my 6 year old daughter remarked at the end by saying, "Hey! We came out where we started!" And I explained to her the advantages of creating a design conducive to moving traffic in and out -- I was mesmerized by the exhibit's displayed archival materials. Doodles and notes were included among puppets and finished pieces of art. Yellow notepad paper was framed just as prominently as finished posters and puppets. There were papers with stains and water damage along the ends. Before the viewer, the curators placed crossed out writings and failed show pitches. This exhibit is truly about the genius of Henson and the archival material allows its audience to see how his thoughts unfolded. In one photograph was a craftsman working from a rough sketch that was placed nearby in the exhibit. It was fun to try to make connections between the notes and the finished pieces or images of works in progress.

I remember seeing an exhibit of Leonardo DaVinci's drawings many years ago and having a similar reaction. There is something special about seeing inside the mind of a brilliant being. It allows us to better understand the genius as a person and to see our connection to him, in addition to provoking us to be awed by his creativity. Indeed, to promote a better understanding of the humanness of another person is one of the prime purposes of archives. To so gracefully and seamlessly work the ideas of the sometimes messy process alongside the finished pieces shows curating at its best. Archives can and should support more exhibit stories in this way.

So kudos to those who worked on the Henson exhibit. I encourage readers to catch the show if you can. Reminisce about your childhood or that of your children. Admire the brilliance and reflect on the way archives are incorporated. Most of all, have fun and laugh.

And finally...forget the new Grateful Dead archivist. I want to be the Jim Henson Company archivist!


  1. Great post, it really brought it alive for me! Good thing you explained about the bayonets, I was worried for a while.

  2. I'm glad that I could bring it alive. An archivist affiliated with the Henson archives e-mailed and told me "So glad you noticed that the drawing of Bert and Ernie appeared in the photo - did you see that in the photo, some of the sketches were missing? Jim clearly walked up while Don was making Bert and showed him on the edge of the paper how he wanted the eyebrows to look. Such a fun way to get a sense of the creative process." I loved that little extra piece of the story!