Puppets generally fall along a scale from Muppets (adorable and cuddly) to Ventriloquist Dummy (unsettling and creepy). Thankfully, the twenty-eight puppets donated to the Nebraska History Museum in 2013 by George Churley of Lincoln, fall toward the Muppet end of the spectrum. Churley, a puppeteer and founder of the George Churley Puppet Company (1973-80), donated the puppets along with photographs and audiovisual materials.
Churley was best known as the writer, producer and puppeteer for Kalamity Kate’s Cartoon Corral, a children’s television program shown on KOLN/KGIN. Churley was part of the show from 1975 to 1980. He also developed Little Reggie’s Quiz Kids, a game show segment featuring students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, which was chosen by the National Television Information Office as one of five nationwide examples of “excellence in local children’s programming.” The George Churley Puppet Company also put on educational workshops and demonstrations throughout Nebraska and the surrounding area.
Little Reggie Puppet, Before Treatment. You can see where the foam fabric is breaking down on his hands and face.
The puppets that were donated to the museum were in various states of repair. These puppets had been well used in their lifetime, and presented the Ford Center staff with unique challenges. Many of the puppets were made with flocked polyurethane foam fabric, similar to blankets often found in hotels, and other modern materials that were beginning to degrade. The polyurethane foam component of the fabric was disintegrating into powder and had a strong smell which meant it was emitting vapors harmful to humans and other objects. The foam was so degraded that even handling the objects put them at risk for further damage. We knew what the problems were with polyurethane, and how to best store it, but we also consulted with conservation scientists specializing in modern materials and others who had dealt with similar problems in rehousing plastics in order to figure out what would be the best solution for the objects and the museum.
(Left) Technician Vonnda Shaw, sews a pillow support for Little Reggie's arm. (Right) Vonnda Shaw attaches Little Reggie to a support tray after treatment.
Because the degradation of the foam is a chemical process, there is nothing we could do to stop it or reverse it. All we could do was slow it down to the extent possible by limiting the amount of oxygen the puppets were exposed to and keeping them in a stable environment. After the puppets were carefully vacuumed, any repairs that could be made were completed. Then internal supports were made out of inert materials. MicroChamber® papers were added to the supports and Puppets were placed in trays made of MicroChamber® board. This material adsorbs* the gasses that are released by the foam as it degrades. The trays were then placed in sealed plastic bags and flushed with nitrogen to remove as much oxygen as possible and therefore slow down the chemical reaction. A humidity indicator was placed in the bottom of the tray. And the sealed plastic bags were clear on the top so that they can be monitored periodically to make sure the bags are not leaking and the condition of the puppets are stabilized.
Conservator Rebecca Cashman (right) and technician Vonnda Shaw (left) fill and seal a plastic bag with nitrogen to slow down the chemical degradation of the polyurethane foam.
*adsorbs: holds the molecules as a thin film on the outside surface or on internal surfaces within the material