Within the registration department, we sometimes like to joke that we are really the Museum of Asian Puppetry. With boxes and boxes of puppets lining our art storage areas, it certainly seems that way! Altogether, the museum owns close to 500 puppets and related theatrical arts. Almost half of these are Indonesian rod puppets (wayang golek) from The Mimi and John Herbert Collection (a rotating selection from this collection is permanently on view in our Southeast Asia gallery). In addition, the collection includes numerous puppets from China, Thailand, and Burma.
Given this notable collection, we were recently thrilled to be offered a full set of Javanese shadow puppets that have been tucked away in their original traveling trunk since before World War II. Now we normally don’t showcase new gifts until they have completed our lengthy and deliberate acquisitions process (a topic for another post some day), but because it will be a long time before we finish processing this gift and because they are just that cool, I thought a sneak peek might be in order.
Why such a long time until we debut this set? For one, it is a really full trunk. There are seven layers of puppets, with sizes ranging from tiny daggers for the characters to hold, to giant horses for them to ride. The puppets can be packed tightly because they are flat. Each one is crafted of carefully cut leather decorated with paint and gold and supported by a thin handle of polished horn. In addition to the puppets, the trunk contains backdrop screens, noise-makers, and other performance accessories.
Readying this set for the museum collection will involve researching each puppet individually in order to identify the character and the story that they belong to, to determine when and how each puppet was made, and to to ascertain the physical condition of each puppet. Because the trunk contains several hundred puppets, this process will be ongoing for many months and possibly years.
Once this inventory is complete, the registrars and conservators will design a storage strategy for the long-term preservation of the puppets (unfortunately, we will not be able to store them in their trunk forever), and begin planning for any immediate conservation treatments that they may require.
With all this to be done, it will be some time before this collection makes it to our galleries. But in the meantime, you can still get your puppet fix in a couple of places. Just this week we rotated the Indonesian rod puppets in the Southeast Asia gallery—the new selection focuses on characters from The Mahabharata (The Great Chronicles of the Bharata Dynasty). Our forthcoming fall exhibition Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma includes examples of both Thai shadow puppets and Burmese marionettes, and will be accompanied by educational puppet activities presented by some very special guests. And if you’re curious about what other puppet acquisitions may be brewing here at the museum, here’s a YouTube hint to enjoy.
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