Two Down-to-Earth Museums
THE NORTHEAST KINGDOM IS THE northeast fifth of Vermont. The label was first applied informally, by a state governor in the 1940s, acknowledging that it was a geographically distinct part of the state, bounded by the Green Mountains on the west, the Connecticut River Valley to the east, and the Canadian border to the north. No monarchy resides here, though. The last king to reign over the region was King George III, the English ruler dispossessed by the American Revolution. Since that time, the Northeast Kingdom has been governed by its collective will and a benevolent detachment built on a respect for independence and self reliance.
The land in the kingdom is mostly forest, woods that provided material over the years for manufacturing toys, tools, and furniture, worked in local mills and plants, including the Ethan Allen furniture factory at Beecher Falls, once the largest in the state, but now closed (though another, in Orleans, is still at work). Within the folds of the kingdom’s rolling forested hills are dairy farms that fuel the ice cream empire of Ben and Jerry’s.
The kingdom is peppered with notable places, like Jay Peak, a notoriously great ski resort, made more notorious recently for corrupt developers who drove it into bankruptcy; the mile-long mine near Eden, once the largest asbestos mine in the nation, now (thankfully) closed, while people try to figure out how to clean it up; the Great Vermont Corn Maze, in Danville, one of the best corn mazes in the country, built from scratch every corn season since 1999, covering 24 acres, containing three miles of forking paths, usually requiring more than two hours to find a way out; and the more easily navigable Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, a classically wondrous natural science museum, whose intricate Eye on the Sky meteorological reports, broadcast over public radio, set the tone for the shared outdoors—as it’s the weather that reigns over the kingdom more than anything else.
Given these ingredients, this physical and cultural terroir, it’s not surprising that the kingdom has produced two of the most down-to-earth museums in the nation: the Bread and Puppet Museum, and the Museum of Everyday Life, the latter springing from the former, like a new shoot sprouting from the roots of an established old maple tree.
The Bread and Puppet Museum
No matter where you stand politically—or about puppets, for that matter—the Bread and Puppet Museum is one of the great landmarks of the American Land. It is a massive reliquary of lefty resistance and performance puppetry, like a colorful cloud of giant fungi, filling a huge barn up to the rafters.
Inside are hundreds of political cartoonish papier-mâché figures from decades of the group’s pageants, performances, protests, parades, and circuses, arranged in former dairy cow stalls, in larger than life dioramas. Upstairs the scale soars, and the vaulted space of the barn resembles a utilitarian gothic cathedral, with massive looming heads and bodies that once took several people to operate, now suspended in space, and in time—a kind of timeless 1970s time, when the form, if not the content, of their performance style was fixed.
The museum is simultaneously inspiring and profoundly disturbing. It is an epic folktale nightmare of persistent colonial brutality, political heartlessness, and capitalist corruption. It is also like a frozen opera on the tenacity of humanist hope, creative vision, compassion, and community, however doomed and futile it might be. Maybe it’s just the moment that matters.
Born in the protest environment of 1960s New York City, Bread and Puppet was founded by Peter and Elka Schumann—he the driven puppet master, she holding things together, reaching out, and baking the bread. They escaped to Vermont in 1970, starting with a residency at Goddard College, a hothouse of progressive and transgressive culture (which fueled Vermont forces like the playwright and filmmaker David “Northeast-Kingdom-Adjacent” Mamet, and spawned the band Phish).
Their move to Vermont was hardly arbitrary. The farm in Glover was owned by Elka’s parents, who originally intended to retire there. Among Elka’s grandparents were Scott and Helen Nearing, who were famous for their writings on rural self-sufficiency, especially through their book The Good Life, helping to guide and inspire a back-to-the-land movement in the 1930s and 1940s, based out of their farm in Jamaica, Vermont.
The Glover farmstead now covers more than 200 acres, including the outdoor amphitheater where Bread and Puppet’s public performances are held. It was the site of the annual pageant that took place every year into the 1990s, which they scaled back, after tens of thousands of people started showing up and hanging out, and things got out of hand. Bread and Puppet now spreads out its performances over several summer weekends, and still travels to other parts of the world.
The nooks and crannies of the property are littered with old school bus campers, and tiny homesteads and encampments for dozens of Bread and Puppeteers who live or visit here to help make puppets, play instruments, print posters, run the museum and store, perform in the theater, farm, bake bread, and what have you. Contrary to popular belief, Bread and Puppeteers are not hippies, however, and never were.
Things are in transition now though, as Elka passed away last summer, after a stroke. She was interred in a memorial glade, in the pine forest at the edge of the property, as part of a festive funereal pageant and procession, a few days after her death on the first of August. Her role was instrumental, as manager of everything social and financial. We will see what happens next.
Museum of Everyday Life
Like the Bread and Puppet Museum, the Museum of Everyday Life is located in a barn on a rural highway near Glover. It opened a decade ago, and inside is a jumble of displays, mostly left from its series of annual themed exhibits, which have included shows about notes and lists, scissors, locks and keys, bells and whistles, mirrors, and dust.
The museum “celebrates mundanity, and the mysterious delight embedded in the banal but beloved objects we touch every day,” according to its website. On display in its vestibule a text panel evokes the writings of Raymond Roussel, encouraging the notion of a museum as a “locus of otherworldly possibility, uncanny discovery and transformational homecoming.”
The museum was founded by Clare Dolan, who worked with Bread and Puppet for many years, and the museum is suitably rustic, material, and direct. But unlike the Bread and Puppet, it is hip and self-aware.
This could be an indication of a new, budding context for the legacy of Bread and Puppet, which is so consistently anachronistic that it seems to be more in its own world than in ours. Maybe with the lowering of the flag of its founders, Bread and Puppet can rise up and become the post-pied piper, trailed by growing numbers through the wooded glens and urban forests, Where the Wild Things Are, into a future of internet-connected back-to-the-landers, marching into the future, down to Earth. ♦