The first thing one sees upon entering The National Heritage Museum’s current exhibition, Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, is Kermit the Frog. I found myself immediately drawn to the case, ignoring the descriptive panels and the art on the wall. They could wait; this was important. I had to see an old friend. While looking at Kermit, I could hear music from the Muppet Show playing on a television from another section of the exhibit. Memories came flooding back—movies about chasing your dreams, a song about rainbows, arguments with a diva pig. I had, over many years of watching the Muppets, developed a deep personal connection to this frog. Kermit is, for all intents and purposes, some cleverly sewn felt and a pair of ping-pong balls. But it was the genius of James M. Henson (1936-1990) that has made him so much more, to so many. And it is the wonderful design of this exhibit that leads the visitor to not only reminisce but to also better understand from where these fantastic creatures came.
It is not the finished products, with which we are so familiar, that are the focus of this exhibition, though they are included. The majority of the display is, instead, dedicated to the process of creating the stories and characters, and to the many trials Henson had to go through before his work gained acceptance. Presented are numerous concept drawings, storyboards, character designs, and illustrated proposals. The person responsible for this approach is Karen Falk, archivist at The Jim Henson Company and curator of this exhibition, which has been traveling the country for the past three years. Falk and The Jim Henson Legacy have worked closely with Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), with the intent of bringing the art of Jim Henson to as many people as possible. To this end, they have gracefully combined text, colors, audio, and video to enhance the “Muppet” feel of this exhibit. And in addition to taking a more “behind the scenes” approach than any other exhibition that preceded it, this is the largest display of Henson’s art ever produced.
Jim Henson’s movies and television shows are something special. They deeply affected the people who grew up with them. The design of Jim Henson’s Fantastic World successfully conveys this effect by placing the familiar characters in the center of each section, resembling something akin to a shrine. On the surrounding walls are the materials that brought them to life. In this way, the visitor is never far from the finished Muppet while viewing the process of its creation. The exhibit does a phenomenal job of showing both the dedicated fan and the uninitiated viewer the many ways in which Jim Henson’s fantastic ideas became the reality that shaped so many people’s lives and made many of us better people. The exhibition remains on view at the National Heritage Museum through June 27th.