M is for Muppets—and museum mounts?

Yes, those of us on the museum staff know our jobs are awesome. Laura McClure of our Office of Exhibition Services shares what it's like to do hands-on work with history.

I make mounts for the National Museum of American History.

When I tell people this is my job, I get an "I don't know what you're talking about" face. Simply put, mounts are the structures that hold artifacts in an exhibition. The mounts are usually made of brass, but can be steel, acrylic, or whatever inert material can safely support objects. In some ways, it's a thankless job, because when I do it correctly, you don't see my work; the mount fades from view and all you see is the real star of the show: The Artifact.

Working with mounts to display historic objects without damaging them
Working with mounts to display historic objects without damaging them

A museum exhibition is a team effort and the mount making process crosses paths with each section of the museum. I work with conservators to make sure the objects are handled safely, with designers and curators to formulate mount designs to fit the overall design of the exhibition, and project managers to determine timeframes. I'm a part of the Exhibition Production staff, which includes carpenters, woodworkers, graphics, lighting, and maintenance. It's a fantastic group of people whom I depend upon to get my job done successfully.

The "Puppetry in America" display
The "Puppetry in America" display

After I answer, "What is a mount maker?" the next question is: How did you end up with that job?

I do not have a bachelor's degree in brass tube bending and defying gravity. Those are actually my minors. I have a background in art, jewelry making, metalsmithing, project management, creative problem solving, and patience.

Museum artifacts are like precious, one-of-a-kind stones that must be mounted in a ring or necklace. The goal is to showcase the stone without damaging it. Same thing with Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves, the Holter heart monitor, or a Civil-War era rifle: keep it safe, keep it protected, so, in a hundred years, it's still around to tell a story.

Speaking of a story! I was born in Pittsburgh in 1976: a bi-centennial baby. My childhool memories are filled with hand-me-down corduroys, vinyl records, metal jungle gyms built on concrete playgrounds, plastic big wheels that you could spin out in, naugahyde couches (see below) and family portraits from Olan Mills. Oh. And one more thing: Sesame Street.

Check out my cool Bert and Ernie sweater!
Check out my cool Bert and Ernie sweater!

In 1979, my younger brother was born. While mom juggled her roles as mother, housekeeper, cook, wife, and overall awesome person, the Children's Television Workshop was presenting a vehicle in Sesame Street that was educational, humorous, and full of puppets. At age three I was absolutely captivated and enthralled by the furry cast of the show.

Cookie Monster, a live hand puppet, was created in 1966 for a skit that aired on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and was used as a cast member of “Sesame Street.” He is made of blue synthetic fur, foam, and plastic and was originally performed by Frank Oz.
C is for cookie! Cookie Monster, a live hand puppet, was created in 1966 for a skit that aired on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and was used as a cast member of "Sesame Street." He is made of blue synthetic fur, foam, and plastic and was originally performed by Frank Oz. Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company. Muppet characters are registered trademarks of Disney Muppets Studio. © Disney

My world was very small, but broadened by all these characters. I learned about friendship from Bert and Ernie (please check out my super cool Bert and Ernie sweater), I had complicated relationship with numbers and vampires thanks to the Count, and my imagination kept me company along with Big Bird and Snuffleupagus. Oscar the Grouch taught me that being different is perfectly acceptable, Kermit demonstrated that frogs make level-headed news reporters while being friends with emotional, silly monsters like Grover. I may have picked up slightly paranoid behaviors from Telly, but also a love for playing the triangle. That brings us to the monster of the hour: Cookie Monster.

My affection and appreciation for that darling blue monster was sealed in March of 1980. During the Ice Follies, Cookie Monster ice skated up to me in the audience, picked me up, and twirled me around. This celebrity monster, whom I knew so well from Sesame Street and my favorite album, Sesame Street Fever, chose me to twirl. Me and my Buster Browns.

It's crazy to believe, but I remember the feeling of being whirled around, the cold wind of the skating rink on my face, the smell of cookies…
It's crazy to believe, but I remember the feeling of being whirled around, the cold wind of the skating rink on my face, the smell of cookies…

Fast track about 30 years (yikes) and I'm asked to work on an artifact wall display entitled Puppetry in America. Um, yes. Please. Our second rotation of objects includes the monster whom I compare all other monsters to: Cookie Monster. Cookie's place would be behind our camera cutout, overlooking his Cookiedom.

I fabricated the mount and fitted it, all while in awe and also trying to not give special treatment to this particular artifact. Just as parents love all their children equally, I respect each artifact equally. Parents do love their children equally, right? Well, I guess you could say I had a different kind of respect for Cookie.

Cookie Monster and his muppet counterparts were more than just entertainment, they were teachers. They marked a specific time in history in which educational television was really hitting its stride. Cookie Monster is an international symbol. He is also a symbol that will bring a smile to visitors' faces.

Display installation documents
Documents that guide display installation

Installation day! All went well in placing Cookie in his new temporary home in the First Floor Artifact Walls. As long as he has his cookie, he seems happy. And that makes me happy.

And yes: there is blue in my hair. I wonder why it’s my favorite color.
And yes: there is blue in my hair. I wonder why it's my favorite color.

Laura McClure is a a project assistant in the museum's Office of Exhibition Services.

Posted at 8:29 am EDT in From the Collections,Musings,Now on View

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