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Henry Ford meets Jim Henson: “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited”

I heard industrial pa-chunking before I even entered the the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Across the street from the museum is the Ford Development Center, where Ford Motor Company does research on new vehicles and “mobility solutions.” The center first opened in 1953 and was designed by Voorhees, Walker, Smith, Smith and Haines of New York. The campus is being rebuilt by Ford and Oslo’s Snøhetta and a lot of the noise isn’t factory noise but construction. Opened in 1933, the Henry Ford Museum was initially a home for Henry Ford’s collection of Americana, objects important in the lives of working class Americans, objects that commemorated the industrial revolution and technological progress as well as things and places Ford  remembered from his own life. Ford was anti-Semitic, a horrible dad and kind of a horrible person all around. He also saw himself as a populist champion of everyday people and believed in the importance of work and the history of working people’s lives. Inside there are more noises consistent with 20th Century–especially early 20th Century–industry: the grinding of the automatic, no-touch paper towel dispenser in the bathroom; the electrical generators visitors can power by hand; and the deep growling of the injection molding machines scattered all around the museum where for less than $5 you can watch the machine pour you a red plastic bust of Abraham Lincoln or a small gray statue of Henry Ford. The museum is built in a style nostalgic for the Federal era with a bell tower recreating Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. There is red brick and white trim. From the outside, nothing seems to exceed three floors except the bell tower. From the parking lot, it looks like an endless series of interconnected liberal arts college campus buildings that somehow contain enormous and even titanic things: the first MacDonald’s restaurant, part of the Highland Park Power Plant, the bus Rosa Parks sat-in on, presidential limousines, a decommissioned Air Force 1, many old steam engines as well as Henry Ford’s violins. And on the museum campus you can take a tour of the Rouge River Plant or spend the day in a reconstruction of Henry Ford’s America at Greenfield Village.

Henry Ford said of the museum: “I am collecting the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used.” And what I’m getting at is that the Henry Ford Museum is not a place I would expect to see the, “Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited.” This is not a museum built for whimsy.  But as a perverse human, I am glad I did see this exhibit in this place. And in this instance, I am more than happy for Kermit, Grover, Wriggling Bros. Circus, Jareth the Goblin King’s bejeweled suit, urRu instruments, Red Fraggle, experimental short films and Missy Piggy’s gloves presented as the history of our people, whoever “we” are. The museum has expanded its mission over time, but its older collection contains so much that is dedicated to work—or what we imagine as work—more than imagination. But as Kermit sings, someone thought of a Portable Cylinder Boring Machine and someone believed in it. Still Henry Ford himself would likely not have been down with Henson’s work, even if I believe Edsel Ford would have. Edsel appreciated much that Henry found frivolous.* And I can have fun imagining the Great Gonzo enjoying the tremendous wheels of Ford’s collection of steam engines or Henry Ford frustrated and aggravated by unidentifiable weirdos lollygagging and shenanigating in his museum. 

“The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited” is on tour from the more extensive permanent exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. The exhibit includes some of Henson Studios’ puppets as well as video segments, short films, props, design sketches, costumes, storyboards, cards breaking down the Carol Burnett episode of The Muppet Show, as well as interactive materials on headphones and tablets that I just didn’t feel comfortable using even during the brief interregnum between vaccination driving local covid numbers down and Delta.

In the exhibition space, Kermit the Frog welcomes visitors with a wave and the exhibit begins a chronological presentation of Henson’s career starting with Henson’s cartooning work in high school. It continues with Henson’s work in 1950s television, including work he did with Jane Nebel (later Henson) on Wilkins Coffee commercials and Sam & Friends (1955-61), their five minute children’s show. We see examples of his work in the 1960s, including early collaborations with Frank Oz on The Jimmy Dean Show (1963-6), co-starring Rowlf the Dog, and Our Place (1967) also starring Rowlf. We see his experimental short film Time Piece (1965), and his episodes of NBC’s Experiment in Television: The Cube (1969), which confronted a lot of American issues, including whiteness, and Youth ’68 (1968), a documentary collage on youth in America. And the exhibit has some groovy designs for his proposed psychedelic club, Cyclia.

Cyclia concept design.

As the exhibit moves on we see  pitch reels for both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, materials including puppets from Sesame Street and The Muppet Show in the 1970s, and move into the 1980s with the Muppet movies, Fraggle Rock (1983-7), The Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986), and, The Storyteller (1987). The exhibition finishes storyboards for Dog City (1992-4), an animated/ puppeteered dog-centric comedy noir series that aired after Jim Henson’s death in 1990. In a very Henry Ford move, the last object is a rig originally designed to puppeteer the tiny Doozers of Fraggle Rock that has been adapted for virtual puppetry. I suppose it’s fitting in this setting that one of my favorite videos in the exhibit demonstrated how the puppetry for the Doozers worked. It was probably the most industrial imagining in the exhibit.

Other highlights for me were seeing the Muppets in person, especially Grover. I also appreciated seeing the details of the costuming. Dr. Bunsen Honeydew was far more dapper in person than I expected. His 1970s suit under his labcoat and white shirt with harvest gold stripes set off the gold filaments in his dark gold felt. Scooter’s leather boots were carefully scuffed. Count Von Count’s cape was lined with printed satin or silk. And the subtle costume details ofJen and Kira from The Dark Crystal are amazing close up. The exhibit even included Jareth the Goblin King’s suit and Sarah’s pale gown from Labyrinth (1986). I was surprised to discover the Skeksis eating ustensils appeared to be stainless steel–and sharp. And in a relic box, as they should be, are the lavender gloves and amethyst ring of Miss Piggy.

It was moving seeing all the work and the ephemera revealing the process. It’s hard for me to articulate. As always, I struggle writing about the things I love the best. A lot of Henson’s work in the 1950s and 1960s was work for adults and as a viewer it is interesting to compare this chronological progression in contrast with my own experience. I began with Sesame Street and The Muppet Show as a child and discovered the Wilkins Coffee commercials, “Time Piece” and “The Cube” only later on. It was striking seeing early Kermit performed by Jane Henson. It was a delight to see materials from Cyclia and the plans for folding the paper that would create the groovy ceiling.

I wish the exhibit did have more objects–especially puppets. But I suppose that means I will have to go visit other collections of Henson’s work in other museums and archives. And I suspect if I had been able to visit before the the pandemic, the interactive media stuff on tablets and headphones would make the whole experience much richer.

I very much wish the exhibit had a program, but while there isn’t a specific exhibition program there are two books that would serve pretty well in that capacity. First there’s Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2012), edited by Karen Falk and published about 5 years before the exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image. And there’s the slightly less program-y, Jim Henson: The Works: The Art, The Magic, The Imagination (New York: Random House, 1993) by Christopher Finch. Both include history and ephemera. And both make fine coffee table books as so many exhibition programs do. Both go more in-depth than the touring version of the exhibit does. All three are a good start at looking at Henson’s work in depth and inspiring people to follow their weirdo dreams.

There are plenty of facts and things to learn from the Jim Henson Exhibition, which is good, but what I really felt was inspired. I don’t feel that with the enormous steam engine wheels. I know some people do and I am glad for them. But I like beatniks giving each other guff over coffee or an earthworm circus. I feel like I am home, like I want to get up to some arty shenanigans or shenanigating art. Like a lot of people, the Muppets have been important in my life both for having a sense of recognition of weirdoness and for a vision of inspiration and creativity that seemed attainable. Not so much that I could be as talented, prolific or have as much as an impact as Henson and the people he worked with did and do, but that it was a kind of creativity that spoke to me: making weird art with my friends.

I have, in my way, found my freaky weirdo-positive Muppet life and friends. I am at peace with my own shenanigans. More than that, I find joy in them. And, however sporadically, I have made my own art that some people like, and that I often like. I would likely always be who I was going to be, but it’s nice to have art and artists helping point the way. For me, Jim Henson was one of those people.

The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited is at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation until September 6, 2021. See where it’s headed next at the exhibition page at the Museum of the Moving Image. 

*Like say art and human rights.

“Carol has had it.”

~~~

Carol Borden is up there in her arch when the curtain rises.

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