Kermit, Miss Piggy, other Jim Henson creations live on at Meridian museum

Published 8:14 am Saturday, January 12, 2019

MERIDIAN — When famed puppeteer Jim Henson died unexpectedly in 1990, his imagination, creativity and influence didn’t die with him.

Nearly 30 years later, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, a huge family of Muppets, and characters from Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal are still with us.

Their stories will be told in an upcoming exhibit at The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience in Meridian. The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited, which opened today explores Henson’s life and the impact his creations continue to have on popular culture.

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The traveling exhibition, which will run through May 4, 2019, tells the story of how Henson’s early film and television work evolved into a worldwide phenomenon. It also gives a behind-the-scenes look at how the Leland native and his crew of puppeteers, writers and designers created their unique cast of characters.

The exhibition features a range of artifacts from Henson’s career, including more than 20 original puppets, character sketches, storyboards, scripts, photographs, film and television clips, behind-the-scenes footage, costumes and interactive experiences that allow visitors to try their hand at puppeteering on camera and designing a puppet character.

Henson’s deep body of work continues to inspire people for many reasons, said Cheryl Henson, his daughter and president of the board of directors of the Jim Henson Foundation.

“I think the biggest thing is fun,” she said in a recent phone interview. “My father really tapped into a sense of play that was universal. People learn through play; they are entertained through play. So much of his work was creative in a very playful way.”

“Also, there’s a sense of nostalgia,” she added, noting that Sesame Street will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019. “For the delight they felt when they were children and first experienced these characters. It’s tapping into memories of their own childhoods. For a lot of people, the opportunity to share what they loved in their childhood with their children or their grandchildren, that’s also a reason to go.”

But deeper than that, Henson said, the exhibition “goes beyond the surface, doing a really in-depth look at the creative process.”

“No matter how well you think you know Jim Henson and his work, you’re going to learn something new in this exhibit,” she said. “Whether that’s exploring the creative influences on his life; it really gets into his early work, his fascination with television, and how he learned about puppetry, how he explored technology. It really gets into a lot of he was able to build up what he was able to actually do.”

Mark Tullos, executive director of The Max, said plans to bring the exhibition to Meridian started about a year ago, as the museum was preparing to open. The exhibition premiered at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle in May 2017, before running from June to September, 2018 in Los Angeles.

“We knew we were looking for something that was a major exhibit to show off our changing exhibit space,” Tullos said. “Every year or two, we hope to host a major traveling exhibit that draws people regionally, from Dallas or Atlanta, or Nashville. This is that type of show, because we’re the only venue in the Southeast.”

“To me, it just seemed like it was a marriage made in heaven for our museum and this exhibit,” Tullos added. “Everybody knows Henson.”

Tullos hopes the timing of the exhibition will be ideal for Mississippi educators looking for an interesting and engaging field trip for their students.

“It’s inspiring for young people to come through and see something like this. It really gives them an idea of what they may be capable of, if they work hard enough at it.” Tullos said.

Cheryl Henson, who participated in a panel discussion on her father’s work at the MSU Riley Center on Jan. 12, agrees.

“All Mississippi school kids should go,” she said with a chuckle. “These days, people want to connect to positive feelings. There’s just so much negativity around, and here’s an exhibit that really is all good. And it’s good, but it’s not saccharine. It’s all real.”