One thing is certain in these difficult times: The world could use more Muppets. And more of Jim Henson's message of cooperation, unity and peaceful coexistence. Long before Rodney King, Henson's creatures were the living (well, felt) embodiment of his famous query: “Can we all just get along?”
The generations that have grown up with Henson's creations — from the early days of Sesame Street through The Muppet Show and on to The Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock — have absorbed that message via gentle humor, imagination and absurdism.
The Skirball Cultural Center is the perfect landing pad for this traveling exhibition organized by New York's Museum of the Moving Image. As Skirball curator Bethany Montagano put it, “MOMI has put together such a stellar exhibit. … You'd think with Noah's Ark, and our built-in family audience, that it would be intuitive that we would take the Jim Henson exhibition and present it here. But we're also very focused on issues of social justice and human rights.
“There's a lot of people out there who feel very strongly that we're at this intersection right now where we can either choose to go to violence and division, or we can choose compassion and kindness, connectivity and empathy,” she continued. “At the Skirball, we seek out perspectives that cultivate compassion and inspire empathy. We feel so strongly that Jim Henson led with those values and folded a lot of those values into his characters and into his parables. And we know that our audience here is very hungry for that as we figure out ways to navigate the social and political tumult of our times.”
That's a lot of weight to heap on the shoulders of some felt and fur-covered creatures. But “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited” is up to the challenge. It traces the creative genius's development from his earliest days, working in grainy black-and-white TV with puppets lip-synching to the hit songs of the day, to his extensive (and hilarious) commercial work featuring an early version of Kermit the Frog, all the way to one of the earliest all-digital characters, Waldo C. Graphic.
This exhibition, which runs through Sept. 2, offers a number of interactive stations as well. You can build your own Muppet — or, more accurately, turn the generic “Anything” Muppet into a character of your devising — or try your hand at puppetry.
iPads throughout offer glimpses into Henson's creative process, as do storyboards and sketches. One sheet of note paper shows Henson working out the perfect title for Labyrinth, while others offer song lyrics or sketch layouts.
If you're looking for inspiration, this exhibit will let you peek into the mind of an “avatar of creativity,” as his daughter Lisa described him at Wednesday's press preview. Of course, she also pointed out that “he never worked alone,” and Jane Henson, his wife, and their many collaborators receive plenty of credit in this show.
Lisa Henson agreed that the Skirball's mission aligns well with many of her father's projects, pointing to Fraggle Rock as a particularly apt example. “That show was one of his aspirational programs; he thought maybe there was a way to foster world peace with people being able to understand each other's points of view better. It was always a fun show, with extremely good music, but it came from a place of wanting to use children's media for good.”
The word “genius” was thrown around a lot at the press preview. Carl Goodman, executive director of MOMI, said, “We're really surfing on the genius of Jim Henson,” and added that the exhibition celebrates “an artist who, instead of being changed by the culture, changed the culture.”
Barbara Miller, MOMI senior curator of collections and exhibitions, pointed to how Henson's characters and stories have stood the test of time. “We did it because the work is truly timeless and universal,” she said.
Some of the Muppets added specifically for the Skirball stop of the tour send a message that the museum celebrates diversity and inclusion, and there are a few surprises as well, which we won't spoil here.
Whether you're a baby boomer who grew up on Sesame Street, or a millennial whose jam is The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth, or an idealist like Henson, this exhibit will delight and inspire. You'll definitely walk out of it with a smile on your face.
“The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited,” Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Brentwood; (310) 440-4500, skirball.org. Exhibit runs June 1-Sept. 2.