The Damned Story: The University of Connecticut in Storrs is home to one of the most unique places in the world, a school and museum solely dedicated to art of puppetry—the Ballard Institute & Museum of Puppetry. In addition to being one of the only institutions where aspiring puppeteers can formally pursue an advanced degree, the facility also has over 2,700 classic puppets.
The study of puppetry at UConn was initiated by Frank W. Ballard, who joined the school's faculty in 1956 and began what would become a world-renowned fine arts puppetry program in 1965. Together with a group of the program's alumni, Ballard founded the National Institute of Puppetry in 1987, which soon after took his name.
In 1996, the museum's fist facility officially opened, originally displaying dozens of puppets created by Ballard and others. The collection has since grown to include puppets from around the world as well as historically important creations, some of which are centuries old. Essentially every kind of puppet imaginable is on display, including marionettes, shadow figures and hand, rod and finger puppets. In addition to changing exhibitions, the museum regularly offers workshops, tours, lectures, forums and other programs.
Sadly, Frank Ballard died in June 2010 due to complications of Parkinson's Disease. The museum continues on under the direction of Dr. John Bell, an accomplished puppeteer and theater historian.
In Spring 2014, the museum moved from its old location on the Depot Campus (shown above) to shiny new exhibition space in the heart of Storrs Center, and expanded its hours and offerings.
Our Damned Experience [updated spring 2014]: We visited the Ballard Museum of Puppetry in its new home in Storrs Center.
With plenty of natural light streaming in, the new facility features polished wood floors, bright white walls, high ceilings and 4,332 square feet of museum, performance and support space, including three galleries, which will be changing exhibitions every three months or so. It also shares glass doors and display-case walls with the UConn co-op, so parts of BIMP’s collection can easily be viewed by book buyers. The performance space can be configured so it can be used either for puppetry works or co-op author events, or even be open simultaneously to both. In addition, BIMP hosts numerous workshops for students and the general public throughout the year.
A large-screen TV continually shows past puppetry performances and there’s by-appointment access to the Kay Janney Library and Archives, a research collection of more than 2,500 books, scripts, manuscripts, posters and other puppet history items—including 700 films and videos. Certain performances are available for general viewing.
For the record, this is not a place full of warm and fuzzy Muppet-like creations or characters that a child might currently see on TV. On view are one-of-kind, older wooden puppets important to the evolution of puppetry; however, many of these characters that entertained children decades ago now look like things that escaped some sort of Tim Burton retro creepfest. (Just sayin'.) Seriously, it's fine to visit the place during the light of day with other people in the building, but if you have an overactive imagination (like we do), you would not want to have to spend the night there, that's all.
Anyway, the museum is a loving tribute to Frank Ballard, his legacy and the art of puppetry. Much of the permanent collection features puppets designed and built by him.
If You Go (updated): The Ballard Institute & Museum of Puppetry is now located at 1 Royce Circle in Storrs Center at UConn. It is now open Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., except for holidays. Admission is free.
The new museum is not a big place, so don't plan on making a day of it. Still, a quirky little odd place (bordering on creepy because of the sheer number of antique puppets and marionettes) and well worth a visit.