Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An Exhibit Even Statler & Waldorf Would Like (for the right price) -- Museum Exhibit Review: Jim Henson's Fantastic World

Museum Exhibit Review

Jim Henson's Fantastic World
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Thru January 23, 2011

"I believe we can use television and film to shape the thoughts of children and adults in a positive way."
-- Jim Henson

I have long found the Museum of Science and Industry to be an excellent museum, for children and adults alike, but have been there enough that now I am only motivated to go when a special exhibit really piques my interest.

Even then, the expenditure of time and particularly money--for general admission, special exhibit admission, Omnimax movies, parking, food and more--is often hard to justify. Although there are few attractions on earth better suited for young kids, I empathize with a family of four having to outlay $150 or more for a day at MSI.

Fortunately, in wanting to see "Jim Henson's Fantastic World," an exhibit devoted to the career of the man behind the Muppets, I was able to avail myself of one of the museum's periodic Free Days (Monday was the last one of 2010, but there are 21 in January, including 15 before the exhibit closes). Combined with finding a parking space on a nearby street, I was able to cut a $31 expense ($15 for general admission, $5 for special exhibit, $16 for parking) down to just $5. Although the MSI is a cultural treasure worthy of public and individual support, given my availability to go on a Monday, the frugality felt quite good.

Especially, as for just $5 plus what I spent on lunch, spending a day at the museum with my friend Amy and getting to see the informative Henson exhibit was quite enjoyable and well worth it.

But to be a bit more querulous like Statler & Waldorf (at right), I don't know that I can recommend the Henson exhibit if you have to spend the full admission to see it and aren't going to deeply explore the rest of the museum.

While it was revealing to learn that Henson developed Kermit the Frog in 1955 for a local Maryland TV show he created along with his wife Jane, called "Sam & Friends," and fun to see Kermit, Bert & Ernie, Miss Piggy and other puppets on display, the exhibit could have stood to be a good bit more engaging, interactive and expansive.

I appreciated gaining greater insight into Henson's origins, career and collaborators, but one's acute enjoyment--and I imagine this holds true even more so for kids--would likely be greater by simply watching Muppet Show videos, catching Sesame Street on TV or finally getting around to watching Labyrinth, as I plan to do soon.

This is an exhibit that has been touring the country for the last few years, so despite limitations well beyond its control, the Museum of Science and Industry should be commended for bringing it to Chicago. Anyone with the time and money to see it will certainly be richer for doing so, as it's hard to overstate the impact of Henson on American children. He truly was a genius in his own realm, and beyond the brilliance of The Muppet Show and his instrumental contributions to Sesame Street, even a reel of brief TV commercials Henson and his collaborators created for various products in the 1960s showcased that Henson's oeuvre was filled with not only fun, but a love of cultural literacy and healthy strains of subversiveness.

It was interesting to learn that Henson's "Fraggle Rock" was, in 1989, the first American TV series broadcast in the Soviet Union. It was cool to see how Henson and his team used "Anything Muppets" that could easily morph into a variety of characters. And regarding his "team," the exhibit also gives plenty of well-merited attention to Henson's longtime creative collaborators, including his wife Jane, Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl and Don Sahlin.

So certainly, there is a whole lot on hand (no pun intended, but pointed out nonetheless) to learn and appreciate. Henson's world--sadly cut short in 1990 when he died suddenly from a bacterial infection at age 53--really was fantastic. But the smile on my face would have been bigger--and my recommendation to others more pronounced--had Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Fozzie, Animal, Beaker and others found their way onto the MSI premises. A science museum's first aim should be to educate and through his work with Sesame Street--a show he didn't conceive but contributed many famed characters and created "learn to count" videos among much other content--Jim Henson certainly did much to further my education and that of myriad millions. But being able to see many more cherished Muppets and having some interactive touches--such as being able to play show clips on-site--would have made the exhibit a lot cooler and warmer at the same time.

For despite often sharing scenes (on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and the movies) with famous celebrities, the Muppets themselves were always the star of the show. They should have been here as well, but there just weren't enough of them present.

You can explore a bit of the exhibit online at the Museum of Science and Industry's website by clicking here. And below is just one of dozens of wonderful Muppet Show clips from 120 filmed episodes:

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