Dear Children of the ‘80s and ‘90s,
Fear not, our childhood has been well preserved. You may have been concerned to hear our Muppet friends were suffering from the ill effects of aging and, I’ll be honest, the diagnosis (and the pictures!) seemed grim. Internal decay, failing support structures, foam hemorrhages, and alopecia were just some of the concerns. Fortunately Sunae Park Evans, Senior Costume Conservator at the National Museum of American History, was up to the challenge.
From both clinical and personal standpoints, the scope of the treatment was fascinating and produced some strangely existential questions. What makes a Muppet a Muppet? Where do you draw the line between replaceable miscellany and canonical Muppet accoutrements? And then, once you determine what is essential to Jim Henson’s original creations, how do you fit conservation techniques geared towards human costumes to a creation where the only human shape is Jim Henson’s arms and hands? With close consultation with original member of the Muppet design team Bonnie Erickson, Ms. Evans was able to navigate these questions while maintaining the integrity of the Jim Henson Legacy.
It may surprise you that puppets so seemingly innocent could have so many inherent vices. First there is the issue of the primary material, Scott Foam, which is a staple in puppeteering for its flexibility. However, the answer to the question of, “What is Scott Foam made of?” was repeatedly, “Scott Foam.” After speaking with several employees of the manufacturer, Ms. Evans was able to confirm that it was a low-density polyurethane which explained the large-scale deterioration and degradation of the Muppet’s internal structure, leading to the loss and collapse of other features. Polyurethane wasn’t the only material at issue as the Muppets were designed more for budget than longevity and featured attachments such as soup spoons and ping pong balls for eyes and leather shoe soles for the mouth. It was determined that much of the foam would have to be removed, leaving only the heads still intact, but the fabrics, facial features, and other appendages would be maintained as much as possible.
Next is the matter of how to classify and treat a movable, usable object used by humans that are not human but emote like a human. Is it a stationary object, costume, installation, or kinetic sculpture? Ms. Evans stated that she struggled greatly with the question and it seems the answer lies somewhere in the middle of all of them. She was able to use standard costume conservation materials and techniques to create the very non-standard forms shown below. By using the jointed base structure she was able to allow for the potential of movement and by padding them out with Ethafoam she was able to customize each form as one would for a costume. Once each Muppet was mounted on its new support and positioned in keeping with its unique personality, Ms. Evans and Ms. Erickson reviewed the new display but something was still off. It turns out that because the Muppets were made to be viewed on screen, they must also be considered as a 2D image. Many of our enigmatic friends were only made to be viewed from a specific camera angle. The Swedish Chef, for example, was always filmed at a downward angle so when he was positioned to be viewed straight-on, the resulting image did not match that from our childhood memories.
What won’t come as a surprise is that Miss Piggy remained a diva. The structure of the current Miss Piggy was still several decades old and the screws holding her together had rusted closed. Only the careful and intuitive navigation of Ms. Erickson, Miss Piggy’s original creator, were the conservators able to cut the joints without disrupting the remaining support and recreate the body with archival materials.
One of my favorite parts of any project is getting to know the object being treated and I was happy to know that Ms. Evans not only spent countless, tireless hours watching The Muppet Show, but also that she remained in constant communication with the Muppets, themselves, during the treatment. With creatures so full of life it’s not hard to imagine they’d have much to say.
*All images are of the PowerPoint slideshow presented by Sunae Park Evans.
Dear Children of the ‘80s and ‘90s,