It's Time To Meet The Muppets...

Last year, when I busily attending screenings from the Jim Henson oeuvre at the Gene Siskel Film Center's retrospective of his work, one of the highlights for me was an announcement that the Museum of Science and Industry would be hosting a Muppet exhibit in late 2010. Of course, at the time that seemed like eons into the future, but here we are in mid-October, and the exhibit in question, "Jim Henson's Fantastic World," has been open for nearly a month already. I had initially planned to make a "girl's day out" of the exhibit by trekking to the MSI with my friends Mireya and Natasha, but due to scheduling conflicts and a shuffling of the guest list, I ended up accompanying Natasha and her mother and boyfriend instead.

Although the exhibit was good, it was much smaller than I had anticipated. When I got to the end and saw the exit, my first thought was, "Wait, that's all there is?!?" However, I was fortunate enough to only pay $5, the cost of the additional special exhibit surcharge, because my employee status at one of the Chicago area-museums gets me free general admission at all of the other institutions. If I'd had to pay $20 to see the exhibit (as I would have if I were a non-Chicago resident), I'm not sure it would have been worth the trip or the expense just to see the Jim Henson exhibit alone. Of course, most out-of-town tourists would be seeing the entire museum, which would add value to their cost of admission. Since I was just there in March, I felt that it was okay to skip the rest of the museum, minus an Omnimax movie for which Natasha's family got me a ticket through their family membership.

The main focus of the exhibit was Jim Henson, his creative process, and the fully-realized fantasy worlds that he created for his characters to inhabit. As a result there weren't as many three dimensional objects as I was expecting. Some of the crowd favorites represented in puppet form, but by and large, the exhibit consisted of Henson's doodles, many of which served as the germs of ideas that later turned into internationally recognizable icons such as Big Bird, and story boards that demonstrated Henson's craft as a storyteller. They were the rare, unusual materials that one doesn't usually expect to see, which made them interesting, but I still felt like the show needed more puppets.

Wilkins and Wonkins from the series of surprisingly violent ten-second commercials that Henson produced for Wilkin's Coffee in the 1950s. Since the commercials were filmed in black and white, it never occurred to me that Wilkins and Wonkins were any color other than grey. The story board to the right shows several ideas for various advertisements.

The cover for Henson's original proposal for The Muppet Show, which he shopped around to numerous outlets before CBS expressed interest in a syndicated version of the program.

For me, the most exciting artifact in the exhibit was the puppet of Mahna Mahna and two of the Snowths that provided backup dancing his eponymous musical number. Although photography was technically prohibited in the exhibit, there was only one security guard on duty, so it was easy to sneak pictures. Unfortunately, the one guard was stationed directly next to the Mahna Mahna case, and I tried several abortive attempts at getting my photo before he finally looked in the other direction. Mahna Mahna and the Snowths were a perfect example of why it was so fascinating to see the puppets in person. In my mind, I had imagined the puppets would be much larger, and I was surprised to see some of the materials that were used to fashion their bodies. From the distance one sees them on television, it is harder to tell how they are made, but the closeness allowed an illuminating view on their construction.

Natasha creating her own Muppet.

As a family-friendly exhibit, "Jim Henson's Fantastic World" had several interactive activities to appeal to children and adults alike. One was a paper-doll-like concept built on the idea of Henson's "Anything Muppets" or blank puppets with interchangeable features that could be used to create any number of characters. There was also a puppet theater with shows geared towards children, a storyboarding activity using Magnadoodles mounted on a wall, and a movie on a loop about Henson's career.

I was pretty psyched to see that the curators included Rubber Duckie in their Bert and Ernie display, which prompted Travis and I to break out into renditions of the "Rubber Duckie" song and "Put Down the Duckie." Natasha would have joined the sing-along but for a cold that deprived her of her singing voice.

Gobo and Cantus of Fraggle Rock, one of my favorite shows as a child.

Ultimately, even thought I thought the exhibit was a little small and lacking in three dimensional artifacts, I still thought it was worth seeing, especially for a Muppet fan of my caliber. I probably would have paid $5 just to see Mahna Mahna in person, though I recognize that's hardly a normal reaction. For a museum-goer with a healthy interest in Jim Henson and his Muppets, the exhibit would make a pleasant addition to a full day at the Museum of Science and Industry, though I wouldn't structure a trip there just to see it unless you are a die-hard fan.

Natasha and I in the circus exhibit, en route to the Omnimax theater, where we saw (or really, napped through) a movie about the recent repairs to the Hubble space telescope.


  1. Although I am wagging my finger at you for photoing this exhibit when they clearly had "no photo" signs, I'm glad you did it because I didn't have the balls to.

  2. I'm glad you did take those pictures... plus it's not the security guard was paying THAT much attention.

    Oh... and I have my voice back! Watch out Jim Henson's Fantastic World! I'll be back!