The MoPop Mindset: Visiting the Imagination Unlimited Exhibition

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Abigail Maughan – I recently got to take a trip to Seattle, and we all know what the must-see attraction in Seattle is right now: the Conibear Shellhouse at the University of Washington, featuring the Husky Clipper boat that won the gold for rowing in the 1936 Olympics!

Oh, right! Also the Museum of Pop Culture, which is currently hosting the Museum of Moving Image’s traveling exhibition, The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited! I had the opportunity to spend some time there last week, and it was incredible.

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The MoPop building itself looks like a Henson creation, with metallic panels arranged in giant waves and curves, beautiful and strange and whimsical. Right away, it evokes the unique spirit of the Muppets. Inside, the exhibit begins when you climb a stairway and are greeted by a Mystic in a large glass case. You then turn the corner to a small queue area, beside which is a large screen playing the Muppet Show pitch reel. Through a furry archway is Kermit the Frog himself, and so the adventure begins!

The area is divided into four major chronological sections to tell the story of Jim Henson’s career: “Early Works,” “Sesame Street,” “The Muppets,” and “Immersive Worlds,” in addition to a brief “Looking Ahead” culmination right before the gift shop. Every wall is lined with art, artifacts, videos, informative plaques, and production documents relevant to that era, and three or four cases of puppets in plexiglass boxes take up the floor of each area. Also, there are giant panels of colorful fur on various walls, which hold no historical value but certainly are aesthetically pleasing.

“Early Works” is the largest section, and rightfully so, as that’s likely the era of Henson history most people are unfamiliar with. It covers Jim Henson’s artistic endeavors in high school, Sam and Friends, commercials for Wilkins Coffee and otherwise, Rowlf and Jimmy Dean, with corresponding clips, actual scripts and original storyboards for each project behind glass nearby. Did Jim Henson throw anything away?

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The “Early Works” area also takes care to note the importance of people like Jane Henson, Jerry Juhl, Frank Oz, and Don Sahlin in the Muppets’ fledgling years. Many prominent Muppet performers are represented at least through photo in the exhibition.

There is an entire small hallway devoted to Jim Henson’s non-puppetry experimental projects, featuring, among other things, a script for The Cube, storyboards for Time Piece, and even a look at the enigmatic Cyclia playing on a faceted piece of wall. Already, this exhibition is proving how thorough it is. It sets out to truly educate visitors about the wild history of Henson entertainment, not simply plop down fan-favorite Muppets to be ogled at. There is a lot to be seen, but just as much to be read.

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In no time, you’re face to face with Ernie and Bert when you enter the “Sesame Street” section. This area also holds some counting animation storyboards, and a nifty touchscreen on which you can flip through a Sesame Street character design guide. These touchscreens are present in other areas of the exhibition as well, also featuring the sketchbook pages of a young Jim Henson, and later the original pitch document for Fraggle Rock, back when it was called Woozle World.

The exhibition features two small centers for hands-on experimentation with how Muppets work. The first, in “Early Works,” is a little alcove where you can pick up a puppet, and record and watch your own lip-sync of “That Old Black Magic” on a monitor, Muppeteer-style in front of you. The second, here in “Sesame Street,” lets you apply and remove features of your choice onto a Fat Blue Anything Muppet, while a nearby screen plays examples of a Fat Blue in action with assorted disguises. Both had a steady stream of kids using the puppets or eagerly waiting in line to do so at all times, and I never saw either station empty. The Sesame Street display concludes with Slimey’s worm circus.

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In the next section, focusing on The Muppet Show characters, all 120 episodes of The Muppet Show play soundlessly at once while the show’s album plays on repeat. The Muppet movies are represented in the form of the first three films’ posters, Jim Frawley’s The Muppet Movie camera tests, and behind the scenes of “Couldn’t We Ride.” Miss Piggy gets a wall to herself, as Rowlf did earlier, similarly describing her creation and meteoric rise to fame. While Piggy herself is not on display, her gloves are. Other assorted non-puppet artifacts throughout the exhibition are Yorick’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” disguise, Steve Whitmire’s microphone headband, and Skeksis silverware.

The walls are filled with concept art by not only Jim Henson, but also by Don Sahlin, Michael Frith, Brian Froud, and others when their time comes in the Muppet story. There are video screens all over the place, some with headphones and some without. Usually the screens are showing the displayed puppets in action, for example, “To Morrow” behind the Country Trio, or snippets of the productions you’re reading about, as well as a healthy amount of behind-the-scenes footage. I don’t think any of the footage is anything dedicated fans haven’t seen before—a Sesame Street song montage, and clips from the “Down at Fraggle Rock” documentary, for example. The video footage is more than enough to establish why what visitors are seeing is important and impressive, even if someone had never seen a Muppet project beforehand.

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“Immersive Worlds” opens with a big beautiful photo of a Dark Crystal set, establishing the growth of Jim’s visions and the new scope of his worldbuilding. This seems like a good place to talk about the feature attraction of the exhibition, which is, of course, the puppets, all 360 degrees of their beautifully preserved and restored selves (except the original Beautiful Day Monster, whose back is to the wall, so what is that, 270 degrees?). The selection of puppets come from all levels of Muppet fame—Wilkins and Wontkins, Red and Wembley Fraggle, Grover, Aughra, the Country Trio and more. I’d never even heard of the Pitchman Pumps until seeing them there.

This was my first time seeing Muppets up close, and it was thrilling, for the obvious reasons (IT’S SCOOTER! RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME!). It was also just plain fascinating seeing, as a fan, what about the puppets is different up close than from on camera, such as the porousness of the foam heads of Bunsen or the Country Trio, the intricacy of ostrich feather-tendril hair, the terrycloth texture of Red’s sweater, or the patches of hair sprouting out of Aughra’s face, which virtually disappear from even a few feet away.

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The puppets I was most enamored with were probably Kira and Jen. What made them so intriguing is that their faces had deteriorated a little, darkened and wrinkled, but they were still stunningly beautiful and so were their costumes. There was a card in their box with them explaining how their material by its nature had degraded over time, but how they had been restored enough to keep them from falling apart, but not too much as to remove their standing as historical artifacts.

Seeing their faded beauty, especially as a clip of the characters in their prime played on the wall just adjacent, was a little inspiring, seeming to point out how unique and special The Dark Crystal, and by extension the entire legacy of Jim Henson, truly is. It really made the point of how there will be nothing quite like it ever again, but the magic really does continue to live on.

Labyrinth is represented by Sarah’s and Jareth’s costumes from the ballroom sequence, and a case full of props from Sarah’s room, including the teddy bear whose theft triggers Sarah’s rage and starts the plot. Behind the Wembley and Red puppets is the digitized pitch document for the Fraggle Rock (did you know that Doc could have been female?), and some always-charming Michael Frith concept art.

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Two walls titled “Looking Ahead” touch as fleetingly on The Jim Henson Hour era as most accounts of Henson’s career do, featuring some art for Dog City and Song of the Cloud Forest, as well as a Waldo used on Dinosaurs. This is the natural end of the exhibition, followed strategically by a gift shop, where you can buy t-shirts, books, DVDs, and toys pertaining to virtually anything you’ve just seen. My only complaint is about the criminally scant selection of Fraggle Rock merchandise in the gift shop, but how mad can I really be at anything after seeing a real Grover within the past hour?

Imagination Unlimited is a detailed and continually entertaining tribute/pop-up documentary that perfectly captures the spirit of innovation that Jim Henson, his collaborators, and his projects embody. It manages to be accessible and engaging for those of all levels of familiarity with the works of Jim Henson, and can probably even teach seasoned Muppet fans something they didn’t know before.

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I could have spent many more hours studying everything in there if I didn’t have to leave when I did, but I’ve seen Fraggles in person now and I can pretty much die happy at this point. I hope this exhibit will motivate everyone from the kids playing in the lip-sync booth, to the adults getting pictures of themselves with Bert and Ernie, to seek out more of the joy that we know Muppets and puppetry provide. Maybe someone will even be inspired to create something awesome of their own.

The Museum of Pop Culture is located on 325 5th Avenue N, Seattle, WA 98109. They are open from 10:00am-7:00pm, and will be hosting Imagination Unlimited until January, according to the customer service guy I called. Visit today and gawk at gelflings!

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