Bread and Puppet Museum - Creepy Giant Puppets
If your only acquaintance with puppets is Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, then you'll be traumatized by the Bread and Puppet Museum.
The museum is the reliquary of the Bread and Puppet Theater, founded in the 1960s by German immigrant Peter Schumann. Anti-capitalist and pro-Earth, Bread and Puppet's name came from Peter's habit of baking bread and distributing it to his audiences. Bread and Puppet productions battled social injustices and the Vietnam War, and were a familiar sight on U.S. college campuses in the 1970s. Then America shifted to the right, and outdoor political theater became about as popular as a trip to the dentist. Schumann himself has written that when it comes to sparking political change, puppets have been fairly useless.
Bread and Puppet moved to this quiet corner of the U.S. -- home of "Moose Crossing" highway signs and the Dog Chapel and Bug Art -- in 1975. Its museum moved as well, into a large, 18th century dairy barn -- part of an old farm that's now populated by mostly-young puppet-makers. Visions of hippies and communes come to mind, but Bread and Puppet's prehistoric pageantry is closer to Wicker Man than Woodstock.
A sign at the door to the museum advises "Enter at Your Own Risk," and it's no joke. This is a drafty building made of 150-year-old wood, packed with props made of paper, cardboard, scrap lumber, old rags, and glue. Signs everywhere warn "No Smoking," and instruct you to turn off the lights when you leave. The ancient floorboards wobble wherever you walk. Hidden animals scurry and flutter in the dark corners.
You can't help but wonder how these frail-looking puppets have survived this long. Some were created as far back as 1963 and look as if one loud sneeze could crumble them to dust.
And these are not just any puppets. These are the stuff of nightmares, spawned from German Expressionism, not Miss Piggy. Every inch of the barn displays something half-human and unsettling: masks, sculptures, miniature dioramas, props, paintings, backdrops. The mass of work reflects both Schumann's decades of production, and an unjust world's inexhaustible supply of puppet-worthy causes.
On the creepy art scale, we think that the closest comparison to the Bread and Puppet Museum may be Vent Haven, the ventriloquist dummy museum -- if you can imagine ventriloquist dummies 20 feet tall.
Schumann has long understood that when it comes to the human form, bigger is better. His immense creations, with distorted faces and clumsy giant hands that could squash you if they were real, require crews of up to 50 people to manipulate. The head of the biggest puppet of all, Mother Earth, leans beatifically against one wall of the museum, dwarfing the exit door.
A towering, moon-faced Duke of Naples extends a rose to the equally stratospheric Queen of Spain. Behind him looms an immense half-tree stump, half-devil. Over in a corner stands Yama, King of Hell, presiding over a court of demons. A dragon head on wheels is parked at the end of the barn, shadowing a tableau of two people being attacked by rats, titled "The System is Unmanageable."
Schumann's puppets may be deformed, but it's fairly easy to tell the good guys from the bad. Heroes include laborers and native peoples, villains include generals and landlords. Many are only dimly visible in the gloom, or are illuminated by lonely light bulbs.
Smaller creations stand beneath the puppet titans: sympathetic garbagemen and washerwomen, a cigar-waving political boss ("Uncle Fatso"), and spirit deer made in 1975 "for an anti-Bicentennial celebration." Hand-lettered signs range from the vaguely helpful ("The big red puppet is the Stomach from The History of Bread") to the over-specific ("Most of the wheat paste figures got eaten by mice"). There is no single organizing theme, and 99 percent of the exhibits are unidentified. As Schumann himself once wrote, "this museum doesn't inform anybody about anything."
Through a back window, we saw some Bread and Puppet people weaving wigs out of grass. Then one of them -- a shirtless, bearded man -- started banging a gong and howling. The rest of the group jumped in with meditative "Ommmmmms" and percussive breathy chants. Perhaps some form of collective theatrical relaxation...
The museum supports itself with donations from visitors, as well as from the sale of posters and publications arrayed on the ground floor. Money is left voluntarily: there's no cash register, no gift shop lady. Some of the offerings that caught our attention included a hand-painted print titled, "Pull off the modernization suit and tie and let the naked sun shine on you," and booklets with titles such as Poems from Guantanamo, Rhymes of the Magical World, and Some Writings on War Tax Resistance.
Unlike other museums, whose purpose is preservation, the goal of the Bread and Puppet Museum (according to Schumann) is to gracefully decay. With that in mind, we suggest that you visit soon. One day the whole collection may go to puppet Valhalla. Schumann probably will be cool with that, but the rest of us will be denied a very special attraction.