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A Panoply of Puppets-Puppet Exhibit from the MSU Museum Archives at RCAH

A Panoply of Puppets

The exhibits at the MSU Museum can only show a fraction of their collection; many treasures reside in storage until a special exhibit brings them to the public.  Among these treasures is the Museum’s little-known puppet collection, which was assembled through generous gifts to the museum by various donors over a number of years — this explains their eclectic nature. The LookOut! Gallery exhibit, “A Panoply of Puppets,” brings to you a cross-section of these puppets, following an RCAH course that explored the power of puppets; the course included a field trip to the Museum storage facility along with construction by students of shadow puppetry items.

The majority of puppets in this exhibit are from Asia, specifically from Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Some overall similarities in their aesthetics are therefore due to shared aspects of their cultural environment. However, there is also a great amount of variation among them, based on each locale’s distinctive cultural practices. Even within one culture, there are regional variations often based on time period, use, or the ideas of an individual artist. It is also important to keep in mind that traditions and cultural practices transcend geopolitical borders, which more often than not cut arbitrarily through cultural landscapes.

From a construction point of view, the displayed puppets range from three-dimensional rod puppets, marionettes (puppets on strings, manipulated from above), and glove puppets, to two-dimensional shadow play puppets.

Another group of puppets that we are delighted to include in this exhibit is from David Lano (1874-1957), who descended from a long line of Italian puppet builders and players and toured the United States with his marionettes and Punch and Judy type glove puppets.

In the US, puppetry has been strongly associated with the realm of childhood and regarded as a lower art form. This is a cultural phenomenon not shared across cultures and is slowly changing in the US itself through the use of puppets in mainstream productions such as Lion King and War Horse.

In Europe, puppetry is at home both in low and high culture. The glove puppet characters Kasper in the German speaking countries, Kašpárek in the Czech Republic, Punch and Judy in England, Pulcinella in Italy, Guignol in France, and Petrushka in Russia are descendants of the human characters of the Italian traditional performance form, Commedia dell’Arte. Their transgressive behavior made them a favorite at fairs and street performances.

Once elaborate marionette operas became fashionable with European nobility, the status of puppetry was briefly elevated. Suddenly, owning a dedicated space for puppet theater signaled status among the Esterhazys and Habsburgs of the 17th and 18th century. It did not take long, though, for this more refined puppetry to take to the streets in the form of the so-called “opera comique.” Now, in addition to itinerant troupes, permanent puppet theaters were established, among which the Salzburg marionette opera is one of the most famous. The overall turn towards naturalistic theater at the end of the 19th century, however, did not serve puppetry well. Some attribute the decline of puppetry to the trend of replicating human actor theater, robbing puppetry of its inherent ability to surpass mere naturalism with moments of magic. As a result, traditional storytelling with puppets suffered. During the early 20th century surrealist and modernist artists briefly rediscovered the power of puppetry arts, but the decline in puppetry as an art form could not be halted.

Today, however, we are witnessing yet another puppetry arts revival in the West. The post-dramatic turn has allowed puppets to come into their own. New forms have emerged that may draw on traditional elements, but are grounded in movement-based storytelling instead of narrative. These performances create something entirely new, often a crossover between various theatrical genres that delve into questions of what it means to be human in the 21st century. In the face of recent technological developments, the fundamental questions about human nature are continuously reformulated, reinvigorating a form of artistic expression that has long inquired into the human condition.

With this exhibit, we take a look back at the roots of puppetry in ritual and entertainment. The secret to the continuous and vibrant traditions in Asia, in contrast to Western practice, is the fact that puppets were not supposed to emulate the human world in naturalistic ways, something that post-dramatic theater in the West just recently began to discover.

Pia Banzhaf