Tucked away inside a decrepit old barn in the tiny hamlet of Glover, Vermont is a little-known, but none-the-less astonishing attraction. It's called the Bread & Puppet Museum, and there is nothing on the outside of this weathered edifice to prepare visitors for what they will see inside: perhaps the largest collection of some of the biggest puppets in the world.
Founded in 1975, the massive contents of the museum are the result of 40 years of creativity and hard work inspired by essentially one man - sculptor and choreographer Peter Schumann, who began the Bread & Puppet Theater in New York City's Lower East Side in the 1960's. Until recently, the theater had performed tightly composed theater pieces presented by members of the company, as well as massive outdoor spectacles with hundreds of volunteer participants, all over the world. Production themes started out with small puppets enacting standard NYC concerns about such things as rats, police and problems with the neighborhood. But over time, they started to address broad social, political and environmental issues, and the puppets began getting bigger and bigger. Inspiration sprang from the poverty of the poor, the arrogance of war mongers, and the despair of the victims.
Today, the theater is in semi-retirement, but still lives on in the form of the museum, whose contents is full to the brim with all the puppets, paintings, masks and graphics from scores of past productions. Grouped according to theme, color or size in dozens of tableaus, the puppets re-create dramatic scenes from retired shows. The collection has expanded to fill every nook and cranny along all the walls, beams and rafters of two floors. When space ran short in the hundred-foot long barn, puppets were hung from the ceiling. They depict a vast population from all walks of life from soldiers and saints, to garbage men and washer women, to crones and clowns, to salesmen and butchers -" and no two facial images are alike. Schumann's style, a prodigious mix of Romanesque, German Expressionism, Cycladic Minimalism and Potato-nose Naturalism, casts a strong stamp on all the creations of the Theater, and gives the Museum a distinct style and unity. In the fauna department are herds of horses and deer, yokes and oxen, fanged beasts and a pack of attack dogs. Simple cut-out dolls only inches tall stand vis-à-vis looming effigies in elaborate dress-up. The largest of these, half-hidden among the throng of other giants, measures 18 feet from chin to forehead.
Since this one-of-a-kind museum doesn't subscribe to the more traditional museum's ideal of preservation and permanence, but rather to one of more or less graceful and inevitable deterioration, consider making your visit sooner than later.
The Museum's official season ends on October 31, so I was surprised upon inquiring in late November to be told to just let myself in if I stopped by, and that the light switches were just inside the entry. Sure enough, the door was unlocked when I arrived with nary another soul around. For about an hour and a half I poked through this amazing place taking photos while trying to keep warm. A sign asked to turn the lights out as I was leaving, which I did, but not before sticking a few bills in the donation box.
Oh, in case you're wondering what bread has to do with any of this, it was distributed at most of the theater performances with aioli (garlic sauce) as a gesture of communal good-will. There's an inconspicuous brick oven on the walkway leading to the front door of the museum.