They are beloved by children and adults alike, symbols of global culture and performance. Puppets. And, a local gallery filled with these elaborate figures is experiencing a renaissance, like the art form itself. "The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry is a collection of almost 3,000 puppets," says Dr. John Bell, director of the museum, which recently moved into space in the newly constructed Storrs Center, across from the University of Connecticut's main campus. "The new location is quite fabulous." Since opening in March, twice as many people have visited the museum than in all of 2013, thanks to foot traffic. With a dynamic summer series on the horizon, the museum is poised to become a popular destination for area families.
"Our collection includes puppets from all around the world , from Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, North America," says Bell. "It started as a means of preserving the work of Frank Ballard who started puppetry at UConn." A professor in the university's Puppet Arts department, a one-of-a-kind program in the United States, Ballard, who died in 2010, was well-known for spectacular performances featuring his rod puppets ranging from scaly dragons to dramatic characters. Next to basketball and research, the school has become known for this unique art form. "Puppeteers come out of UConn and they're known around the world…as highly talented and totally competent puppeteers," says Bell, pointing out a photography exhibit by Richard Termine, a Ballard student and UConn grad, showing the range of contemporary puppet performance. "From 'Sesame Street' to avante-garde theater to 'War Horse' to 'Cirque du Soleil.'"
The museum (bimp.uconn.edu) shares a stage with the neighboring UConn Co-Op Bookstore, providing new opportunities to put-on puppet shows for the community. Bell is particularly excited about an upcoming summer series on Saturdays from late June to August: "We're going to have puppet performances by UConn Puppet Arts students here in our theater space and maybe outdoors on the Town Square." Workshops are also being offered, giving children the chance to develop their own creations.
Puppetry represents a beautiful combination of art forms. "Sculpture, sculpture that moves, visual arts, drawing, painting, dance, drama, voice, music," says Bell, explaining that puppetry dates back to ancient times in China, Indonesia and Africa. "You always find super interesting ways that these sculptures played a really important part in the cultural life of the community." While kids connect to the shapes and sounds of puppets, adults may see an opera in a different way when watching this varied cast. And that, says Bell, is the beauty of this form of expression, born from creativity, wood and cloth: "I think people come in and get inspired by different aspects of it."
To see video of the museum, watch Monday's Fox CT Morning News.