Pulling the Strings at the American History Museum

A history of puppets, all in one place.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Some of America’s most beloved puppets are celebrated on one of the National Museum of American History’s “artifact walls” starting December 13. “Puppetry in America” looks at the history of puppets from the Civil War era to the present, from ventriloquists’ dummies and marionettes to more recent characters created by Jim Henson and for director Tim Burton.

The exhibit draws on research by curator Dwight Blocker Bowers for a book about the puppets as well more than 20 Muppets donated to the museum this year by the Henson family. To help protect the items, the show is divided into two parts, with the first rotation (through January 26) featuring old Punch and Judy figures; marionettes from the TV show Howdy Doody; Edgar Bergen’s dummy sidekick, Charlie McCarthy; characters from Captain Kangaroo; and a handful of Muppets. The second half, on display from early March to mid- to late April, includes puppets from all over the world as well as one notable crank: Oscar the Grouch.

The show aims to take the museum’s collection of puppets and “reexamine them in contemporary terms,” says Bowers, who counts Kermit the Frog among his favorites. “The contribution of Jim Henson and the breeziness and humor he ushered in is unmistakable. Kermit is this wonderful alter ego, not just for Henson but for the American public because he’s so gentle and unassuming. We hope to show the infinite variety encompassed by the word ‘puppet.’”

“Puppetry in America.” Through January 29 at the National Museum of American History. For more information visit the museum’s website.

This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.