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Breaking out of the Box

Fay Tsitou investigates moving objects in British museums

Objects are the main ‘protagonists’ in two different fields: museums and puppetry. In both cases, the objects enable us to interact with our surroundings, our past, and our inner self.

Museum visitors perceive a vast majority of the museum objects from a distance, while these remain mainly static and mute in or outside the galleries’ showcases. On the other hand, puppet theatre audiences join the world of moving objects/puppets that are often literally given a voice (sound or speech). Nevertheless, is there a common ground of static and moving objects worth exploring in these contexts?

Museum Puppetry Research

Museum puppetry adopts the language of puppetry within museum exhibitions. It aims at investigating the interaction among museum visitors, objects’ stories, exhibits’ histories and exhibitions’ narratives. It examines how object-centred activities discretely disguise their visitor-centred identity while they enable visitors to free their mind and heart from possible inhibitions or preconceptions. Museum puppetry is a type of museum learning activity, similar to and often combined with museum theatre. However, as G.B. Shaw might say, ‘the actor in his primitive form’ (i.e. the puppet) unblocks the audiences’ imagination which ‘…plays a far greater part than the exertions of the actors’.

Museum puppetry examples in UK
There are a number of variables that characterise a museum puppetry activity, such as the type of museum, the type of puppetry, the target group, the activity area in the museum, the degree of interaction among the four units (participants, exhibits/collections, puppets, practitioners), the use of verbal and/or object language. For instance, one type of activity could be a complete show around a museum’s performing object, as for example in the Keswick museum in Cumbria where Ali Mc Caw presented a wayang kulit style performance, The Musical Stonemason. The show combined shadow and table-top puppetry with a gamelan orchestra which incorporated a museum object, the musical stone of Skiddaw. Moreover, shows can be related to an exhibit’s narrative. For example Professor Geoff Felix’s popular Punch and Judy street puppet theatre show was presented in the garden of the Geoffrey Museum and at the Museum of London as part of the Victoria Street exhibit (It is no surprise to learn that Felix’s beautifully crafted booth was once mistaken for an exhibit as it was standing in an open area at the same museum!)

Other examples include:

A workshop on puppet construction and manipulation - like the skilfully structured workshop that follows Anna Ingleby’s shadow puppetry shows

A puppet workshop based on the museum’s handling collection - as this happens at the Horniman Museum (London) to acquaint primary school students with the various types of puppets

A puppet exhibit - like the automata or the dinosaur animatronics in the Natural History Museum in London

Creative learning processes with the use of everyday objects - as these are facilitated by Hedsor Creative Learning, to enhance museum interpretation in places such as Sheffield Museums and Galleries Trust and Manchester City Art Gallery

A museum tour with the puppet as a storyteller/facilitator - like Vivien Mousdell’s palaeontologist Dr. Ambrose in her puppet show Fossils Alive 

An outreach programme - like Jill Webster’s interactive puppet show Pirates! All Hands on Deck!, commissioned by Glasgow Science Centre

Manipulation of puppets that belong to original collections is considered par excellence a museum puppetry case - as John Mc Cormick performed with the Victorian Marionettes at the Museum Theatre in London.

The following cases further illuminate the multifaceted potential of performing objects in museums.

‘Authentic’ metaphors

For twenty-five years adult museum visitors have been enjoying Robert Poulter’s New Model Theatre shows in conjunction with special exhibitions and collections, in numerous European and US museums. During Poulter’s sophisticated toy theatre shows, paper figures travel smoothly in time and space while interacting with each other and their stage environment. Backdrops are changing continuously. The audience perceives the world represented on stage neither as something static, nor fragmented, but fluidly constructed moment by moment. Although puppetry favours mythological and fictional stories, Poulter makes use of his talent in painting and research skills to interpret selectively historical evidence via flat figures and settings that move vertically and horizontally. The elaborate, live montage evolves as fast and as easy, as the turning of a page. For example, during the art history show Mr Turner Gets Steamed Up, action moves instantly from Margate to London, or from the view out of Turner’s window onto the canvas of his famous paintings. The liberties taken with the spoken and visual narrative are noted in detail on the program of the show, allowing Poulter’s beautifully crafted paper figures to stand bravely as ultimate ‘authentic’ metaphors on a miniature stage of History.

Multi-sensory experience

Real coffee beans, shells and cloves cover small wooden boats which sail in a Museum of Docklands' performance originally devised for visitors with the most complex educational needs. The boats' cargo can be smelled and felt as they (metaphorically) travel over the sea to London's Victorian docks in a storytelling piece entitled Over the Sea to London, devised by Emily Capstick and Alison Hale (Peoplescape Theatre). Peoplescape have been creating participatory performances in community, education and museum settings for twelve years.  Taking advantage of applied theatre techniques, live music and puppetry’s rich potential and flexibility, Capstick and Hale replace verbal description of the past with live action in the present. They create a multi-sensory engaging experience for an audience in-role role with the use of puppets and manipulated objects, without relying on verbal communication.

Popular art

Last year, Dr Matthew Isaac Cohen, as a dhalang shadow puppeteer performed his Ramayana in four parts with the Southbank Gamelan Players at the British Library, where an exhibition under the same title explored how the Indian epic story is retold over the centuries. Similarly to a presentation to an Indonesian audience (who enjoy a great deal of freedom in watching the popular story – spectators can move around, take a nap, leave the show and return!), the Library’s audience could watch the nearly three-hour performance seated on pillows or circulating around it. During the show, the spectators could also either move towards the exhibition area to enjoy a museum experience while still hearing the superb chanting and music, or they could go behind the screen and the performers to have a drink while still enjoying the delightful puppet show from the back, viewed through a door opening. While standing in the middle, the wayang kulit Indonesian type of shadow puppetry created an intimate in-between space bridging two worlds: art and life.

Two remarkable cases outside UK

In 2002, a Brooklyn-based constructor/puppeteer, Chris Green, was commissioned to create a part of Noah’s Ark exhibit in the Skirball Cultural Center in LA. His sophisticated kinetic or fully manipulated installations – interactive exhibits and puppets manipulated by the museum staff – were made of recycled materials and today attract people of all ages and backgrounds. The Noah’s Ark exhibit received awards of excellence from the American Association of Museums and Themed Entertainment Association.

In 2001, the renowned French director Philippe Philippe Genty presented Le Concert Incroyable in the Grande Salle de l’ Evolution in the Natural History Museum of Paris. High technology projections of inventive graphic designs were used and interacted with the central exhibit of the gallery: a march that consisted of large mummified animals. This puppet and physical theatre show was a composition of mesmerising images, dramatic action and chorus singing; a unique experience for an adult audience.

So, as we can see museum puppetry embraces a far broader spectrum of practice than might at first be thought! To perceive museums as just another sort of venue, and museum puppetry as a merely a medium suitable to attract preschoolers with their families during Christmas period, is limiting. Recognising the performing objects’ potential and communicative power, some museums support their use for their activities and learning programmes year-round.

In fact, these are the museums that foster a close relation between the two inanimate ‘soul brothers’: museum exhibits and performing objects. In the hands of the experts, such interactions give an extra meaning to an old mystery: ‘…Inanimate objects / have you then a soul / That clings to our soul / and forces it to love?...’ (Alphonse Lamartine, Milly ou la terre natale, 1822)

George Bernard Shaw quotation is taken from his introduction to Max Von Boehn’s Puppets and Automata (Dover Publications. New York, 1972, trans. Josephine Nicoll)


Images at top, left to right:

Image 1: Anna Ingleby workshop

Images 2 & 3: Chris Green Noah’s Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center

All images courtesy of the article’s author


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