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 (in business from 1973 to 1980), donated the puppets along with photographs and audiovisual materials.
Churley, trained in theater, was best known as the writer, producer and puppeteer for Kalamity Kate’s Cartoon Corral, a children’s television program shown on KOLN/KGIN in Lincoln, NE. 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 disrepair. 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. After more than 30 years in storage, 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. One of the materials used in the construction of the trays is MicroChamber® paper and matboard which is an acid-free, lignin-free material that includes special materials that chemically trap the vapor-based pollutants given off by objects as they deteriorate over time. MicroChamber® papers were added to the supports and puppets were placed in trays made of MicroChamber® board. 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 also placed in the bottom of each tray so that the trays to be monitored to make sure the seals were intact and no moisture was entering the bags. Sealed in clear plastic bags, the trays can be monitored periodically to ensure 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.