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Credit: The Jim Henson Company/Museum of the Moving Image. Jim Henson on the set of Time Piece, the short film he directed (and starred in), which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1965. © The Jim Henson Company

Here's a whole new way to look at Jim Henson

Contributed by
Jan 31, 2018

When you hear the name Jim Henson, where does your mind go? The Muppets? Sesame Street? Labyrinth? What about Time Piece? It's impossible to list all his memorable achievements or the many amazing characters and worlds he created with his wife Jane and their collaborators. Even if you're a fan, there are still likely elements of his career you don't yet know much about. Now you can dive deeper into all these aspects of his career when visiting the Jim Henson Exhibit at New York City's Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

The exhibit represents the end of a long journey to find a permanent home for a large collection of puppets that belonged to the Henson family. It was about 18 years ago that they started to consider how they could have a permanent museum space for some of the collection, according to Cheryl Henson. Jim and Jane Henson's daughter, she serves as the president of The Jim Henson Foundation and as a member of the board of directors for The Jim Henson Company and The Jim Henson Legacy. It was a process that eventually resulted in splitting the collection between three locations: Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts, the Smithsonian, and the Museum of the Moving Image.

Henson stressed to SYFY WIRE that it was a team effort putting these exhibits together. Henson was the family member most directly involved with the exhibitions, working on the Henson side with Muppet designer and builder Bonnie Erickson, head archivist Karen Falk, and Jim Henson Legacy president Craig Shemin as they worked closely with the curators and teams at each location. Henson said this worked out well because each location had their "own special way of approaching the material and were able to bring fresh different ideas to how they were going to display the material."

"The Museum of the Moving Image was particularly interested in my father's early television work because they are... very interested in the history of television and advertising. There's a lot about the history of television and the history of advertising that are intertwined and that was very instrumental to my father's success. Barbara Miller [senior curator of the collection and exhibitions] was very interested in making sure to get a really nice selection of my father's early work before Sesame Street," Henson told SYFY WIRE. "Many of the best-known characters are at these institutions, but the Museum of the Moving Image has a little bit more of a focus on the history of television, history of advertising, and experimental filmmaking and my father as a filmmaker as well as a puppeteer and not just as a puppeteer."

Credit: Photo by Thanassi Karageorgiou/Museum of the Moving Image. The entry to The Jim Henson Exhibition.

For Miller, one of the real gifts of the exhibit is that they are "restoring his identity as an experimental filmmaker" to fans and those who may not be familiar with his work.

"We have a whole section in the exhibition that features puppetless works that he mostly did throughout the 1960s where he was sort of increasingly seeing himself as primarily an experimental filmmaker and was still working on puppet productions, but this was before Sesame Street hit and I think he felt he was going more in the direction of puppetless filmmaking than anything else," Miller said. "There's a lot of that work in this show and I think having that broader perspective on who he was as an artist makes you look a little bit differently at everything he's done."

Henson said few people are aware of her father's work as a filmmaker and highlighted the short film Time Piece as a must-see for exhibit visitors. It was made before he started working on Sesame Street, premiered in 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art, and was nominated for an Academy Award. To Henson, it was "very groundbreaking at the time" and people should know about it as well as some of his other work they might not be familiar with.

"There's an aspirin commercial where it's all inside the man's head as he's getting a headache and I'm actually playing the annoying daughter. He really was very interested in telling stories through images and quick-cut editing," she said. "They have on display some scripts and the editing script for a television special he did called Youth 68 that was about the youth movement and intergenerational conflict in 1968. It's a really fascinating piece of television. It's visual and it's music and it's language, but it's all primary source so interviews that are quick cut to tell a story to juxtaposing phrases that people use and how people describe things. It was really groundbreaking and it's not the kind of work people associate with my father."

For Henson, it's nice for people to see that her father wasn't just about entertainment but was thinking about and exploring different issues in our culture.

"He was an artist who was thinking about the world and people. He was a visual artist. He was also a painter and a graphic designer and as a filmmaker he was always looking at visual storytelling. He was never a writer in terms of the written word. He used composed images and character. They do a really nice job of talking about character and character development [at the museum]," she said.

His early animations are also worth seeing and fit nicely with other parts of the museum. According to Henson, he was interested in music like electronic music and jazz, and in college did graphic design for some jazz albums.

"He would do cut paper animation under the camera, animation to quick tracks that then went with different music and they have a really nice little video of a little film of my father actually creating one of these cut paper animations," she said. "It's kind of fun because that cut paper animation technique ties directly into one of the really great interactives that the museum has, where people can do a paper animation under the camera and film it and send it to themselves which is really marvelous. I feel like they've done a really great job of integrating this exhibit into the other wonderful exhibits that are at the museum."

It's not just these innovations in film that you'll find at the museum. Among the more than 300 items on display, visitors can get a closer look at the innovations behind the familiar characters we've seen on screen. Miller points to two interactive areas that allow visitors to experience these inventions first hand, including one that shows visitors how Jim and Jane used the screen as the stage for their puppets; other puppets on TV at the time were adapted from stage shows and framed by separate environments.

"The first one allows visitors to put on a puppet and frame their performance by watching a monitor. Basically, what they're seeing on a screen is what an audience would see at home if they had their cameras attached to a live feed which is what Jim and Jane did," Miller told SYFY WIRE. "They would perform for a camera and watch themselves and it would be exactly what the audience is seeing at home. That was really new and very innovative. I love that we're allowing people to get a hands-on sense of that."

Credit: Photo: Thanassi Karageorgiou/Museum of the Moving Image. Installation view: "Experiments" section.

The second interactive area involves designing an Anything Muppet character. These were developed when he started working with the team on Sesame Street and already had a robust group of puppets for commercials and other work, according to Miller.

"Suddenly Sesame Street needed scores of puppets for every episode and it was weekly. There was no way to make one particular puppet character for each thing so this really innovative thing they did was come up with different puppet forms and shapes that had particular colors. They could make 25 of them or whatever and then put on features in infinite combinations to make different characters," she said. "You can really see that innovation here by being able to put features on a puppet form that we have here and watch clips of that particular form and depending on how the features are put on, the voice, and the performance, it could be anything from, [with] the same puppet form, a little girl to a spider to a creature from outer space. The limitless creativity that set of tools provided was amazing."

The exhibit as a whole highlights another innovative aspect about his work that some might not always remember too, and that's collaboration. Henson said the exhibit does a good job of talking about this, which was a strong point of her father's. He was good at collaborating with other creative people and bringing people with different skills together to work.

"I think that is not something everyone is capable of doing. People tend to think of my father in terms of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and what I like about these exhibits is that they give his other work a platform as well and [people] get to meet him as a multidimensional artist," she said.

Miller is excited for people who walk through the exhibit to learn about his work as a creative thinker and experimenter, and how he encouraged other people's creativity in a way that allowed him to have a loyal and creative team with him through the years. Miller said it was incredible meeting some of those people for the exhibit, because they were so involved with his life and world.

"I think to dig into that is really important, but also my hope is that it will encourage other people's creativity by seeing in a large sense the homespun and the handmade essence of a lot of these things. It just didn't come down from on high. People made these things. People made them, worked together, collaborated fiercely to make things," she said. "You can make things too. We're hoping it is a jumping off point for people's own creative thought and really inspires people to experiment and try things that are just in their minds because you never know what's going to connect with other people."

You can visit The Jim Henson Exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image now.