Ballard Institute & Museum of Puppetry, Storrs
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 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.
Our Damned Experience: We visited the Ballard Museum of Puppetry on a quiet Sunday afternoon in August 2010. Since we were the only visitors at the time, we were able to see the entire place without any restriction.
The two students who greeted us upon our arrival were very friendly and politely offered us the choice of either a guided tour or the opportunity to wander the museum on our own and then ask any questions. Since we had two (somewhat impatient) kids with us, we opted for the latter, and went through the exhibits, which basically were dozens of vintage puppets and marionettes. The museum has two main wings, neither of which that are all that large — you can go through the entire place in an hour or two, including seeing some of the classic videos and DVDs that are available to watch.
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.
We should mention that the museum is in a weird, seemingly abandoned area of UConn that is not exactly part of the main Storrs campus. It’s on the Depot Campus a mile or so west of the main campus, located on Route 44 — some of the buildings around it are actually empty and overgrown by vines and bushes.
If You Go: The Ballard Institute & Museum of Puppetry is located at 6 Bourn Place on the Depot Campus of the University of Connecticut. During the school year, the museum is usually open Friday to Sunday, noon to 5, except for holidays.
As mentioned, the 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.
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