‘Jim didn’t think in terms of boundaries at all the way the rest of us do. There are always these fences we build around ourselves and our ideas. Jim seemed to have no fences.’
—Jon Stone, Sesame Street producer and director

Without ‘fences’ to limit where his imagination could roam, Jim Henson(1936-1990)—artist, puppeteer, film director and producer—created elaborate imaginary worlds filled with unique characters, objects, environments and even languages and cultures. Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, an exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the Jim Henson Legacy, offered a rare peek into the imagination and creative genius of this multitalented innovator and creator of Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and other beloved characters.

Jim Henson’s Fantastic World was the inaugural show in the Della Penna-Fernberger | Paton | Smith Galleries, the new exhibition space that is the center-piece of the Museum’s $12 million expansion.

This exhibition featured 100 original artworks, including drawings, cartoons and storyboards that illustrate Henson’s talent as a storyteller and visionary. Among the variety of exhibition objects were puppets and television and movie props, photographs of Henson and his collaborators at work and original video productions, including excerpts from Henson’s early career and experimental films. The exhibition installation included a resource room, which featured hands-on activities for children of all ages, including a puppet theater.

‘It’s such a treat to get to know Jim Henson through his doodles and drawings, his puppets and his fantastic performances,’ said Karen Falk, curator of the exhibition and archivist at The Jim Henson Company. ‘I’m delighted to be able to share this inspiring and entertaining experience with people all over the country. Seeing his original work firsthand opens a window into his visual thinking and provides both an appreciation of Jim as an artist and a reason to laugh out loud.’

From the very beginning, Henson expressed his ideas with incredible bursts of invention, through a variety of visual forms, clever dialogue, songs, comic bits and animation. All of his work reveals a highly sophisticated and nuanced thought process, evident in the decades-long metamorphosis of a small group of captivating characters from simple doodles to cartoons to puppets to films. What began as a one-man enterprise eventually grew into an international phenomenon. As time passed, the simple hand puppets that Henson created for his first television show, ‘Sam and Friends,’ evolved into increasingly more sophisticated characters—from the Muppets of ‘The Muppet Show,’ ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Fraggle Rock’ fame to the larger-than-life fantasy creatures of ‘The Dark Crystal’ and ‘Labyrinth’.

Jim Henson’s Fantastic World was organized by The Jim Henson Legacy and SITES, in cooperation with the Henson Family; The Jim Henson Company; The Muppets Studio, LLC; and Sesame Workshop. The exhibition was made possible by The Biography Channel. Additional support has been provided The Jane Henson Foundation and Cheryl Henson.