Puppets aren’t just for peewees. Proof positive: The second and final rotation of the “Puppetry in America” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where Howdy Doody and Cookie Monster co-mingle to showcase the history and future of marionettes, will catch your eye as much as that of your mini-ventriloquist. From Martina (a 1940’s marionette inspired by a Puerto Rican Folktale) to Ms. Piggy, here’s what you need to know to make this puppet visit a hit with your entire crew.


The Exhibit
The 30-foot long display case sets out different forms of puppets spanning several generations, including shadow puppets, marionettes, finger puppets, hand puppets, ventriloquist puppets, rod puppets, hand-rod puppets, and slow-motion puppets (bet you didn’t know there were that many different kinds!). If  you are bringing antsy toddlers to the display, don’t worry—you can go through the entire exhibit in 30-40 minutes. Located on the first floor near the museum store, kids will recognize Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster and Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street and cast members from the popular TV show The Muppet Show, including Fozzie Bear, Swedish Chef and Scooter. Make it a grandparents date—older museum-goers will remember the exhibits more classic figures, including ventriloquist puppet Bob Campbell.


Marionettes 101
Puppetry is among the oldest practices of performance art in America.  Immigrants brought some of the earliest traditions to America from Italy, France, and Great Britain. The display aims to show the uniqueness of American puppetry, achieved through the combination of immigrant and homegrown traditions with the influences of electronic media. The art of puppetry relies on three aspects: a puppet, an imaginative puppeteer, and an audience willing to suspend disbelief to accept the puppet as “real.”  The display captures the complexities of puppetry in all its many forms.


Puppets On the Move
While the display case is not interactive (mainly because some of the puppets are decades old), with a little prep the kids will learn a lot and enjoy the exhibit nonetheless. Here are a couple  of ways to take the puppet magic home with you: talk about the different types of puppets, and decide which ones the kids want to make at home; or, check out the puppets from the 2005 film Corpse Bride, learn about the process of slow motion puppetry, and then make your own slow-motion video on your smartphone using Flipagram.


Good to Know
If all of that puppet-watching makes you hungry, The Museum of American History offers two places to eat within the building: Stars and Stripes Café (open 11am-3pm) serves soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts; and Constitution Café (open 10am-5pm) hawks a bold cup of coffee, a light lunch, and ice cream. The museum is free and Puppetry in America will be on display until April 13.

National Museum of American History
1400 Constitution Ave., NW (Smithsonian)
Online: americanhistory.si.edu

 Have you visited this exhibit yet? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below. 

—Shelby Settles-Harper

Photos courtesy of the National Museum of American History