It’s only a 30 minute drive from Derby Line and the Canadian border, but I got into that driving zone fast. Probably because I’d done little else for days except drive around upstate New York and Vermont. And I was about to reach the highpoint of my trip: the Bread and Puppet Museum in Glover, Vermont.
So, I’d zoned out. I turned off the freeway and the fast-approaching Stop sign barely registered with me and I almost shot straight through it. I saw a car about to cross my path. Then the sign. Felt the blood rush from my face. Slammed on my brakes. I stopped a few inches over the line. Everything was fine, but I knew I should take a break.
I pulled over in front of a barn selling maple syrup souvenirs. Everyone sells maple syrup souvenirs around here. This one was closed. Aside from myself and the car I’d nearly run into (and where had that car sped off to?), there was no one around. I walked over to a large faded map on a wall. It was so sun bleached I could barely read it. I pulled out my phone to see where I was; no reception. My iPad is with a different carrier, so I checked that too. No reception there either. I ate some trail mix and drove on.
The Bread and Puppet Museum isn’t really in Glover, Vermont. I drove through town, past the cemetery and up a mountain. Eventually there was a break in the trees. On my left, a huge nineteenth-century barn, on my right a seemingly abandoned school bus next to a low, wooden shack. I parked in front of the shack, below the sign saying “Museum Parking”. There was one other car.
The barn houses the museum. The lower level is divided into three corridors, each packed with hundreds of puppets, varying from the size of your finger to at least twelve feet. I heard someone else in the barn, but after a couple of camera flashes, that person left and I was alone with the puppets.
I started taking picture after picture (I took 246 photographs in all). I wanted to record everything I was seeing. I never wanted to forget this. But soon I knew I was yearning human contact. I wanted to run into a member of the Bread and Puppet Theatre who could maybe guide me through this cacophony of puppets. These puppets filled the walls and were plastered over the ceiling. It was beautiful, amazing, overwhelming. I looked out the window and saw another derelict bus and—there!—another human being.
I checked the settings on my camera and by the time I looked back, he was gone. I knew then that I’d be alone today. I gave myself over to the beautiful puppets, survivors of former shows by the Theatre.
Upstairs is a single, gigantic cavern where you can scarcely move for puppets.
Moving from Germany in 1963, Peter Schumann founded the Bread and Puppet Theatre in New York City. He brought his puppets to anti-war protests, and founded his first Bread and Puppet Museum—a resting ground for puppets from former shows—in the Lower East Side. In the early 70s the Theatre and Museum wandered until they settled here, in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
In a manifesto from the early 60s, Schumann wrote
We sometimes give you a piece of bread along with the puppet show because our bread and theatre belong together. For a long time the theater arts have been separated from the stomach. Theater was entertainment. Entertainment was meant for the skin. Bread was meant for the stomach. … We want you to understand that theater is not yet an established form, not the place of commerce you think it is, where you get to pay something. Theater is different. It is more like bread, more like a necessity….”
Man cannot live on bread alone.
It is a deliberately perverse museum. There is such an overload—there must be thousands of puppets here—you simply can’t take it all in. How can it all be preserved? In the winter, the museum is closed and the hatches battened down. But the seasons must take their toll, and these puppets too shall rot. In 1989 Schumann wrote
The barn is full to the brim; its population density is an expression not only of the accumulation of time but of the urgencies which inspired the making of so much stuff: the poverty of the poor, the arrogance of the war-mongers, the despair of the victims. And, naturally, all this will decay in due course.
We call out philosophy of production: The Art of Impermanence. We replace the traditional museum’s ideal of preservation with acceptance of more or less graceful and inevitable deterioration.
Back downstairs is a gift shop. Naturally, there is no one there. Everything is priced and there’s a box for you to stuff notes and cheques in. I only had a $20 bill and everything there was so cheap. I picked up a poster, a book, some postcards and was nowhere near $20. I picked up more stuff and was only at $12. I gleefully stuffed the $20 note into the box, if any museum deserves my love, it’s this one.
The love and belief that went into these puppets… this preservation of endless decay… this is the most affecting and beautiful museum I have been to in many, many years. The Bread and Puppet Museum has to exist, and it has to exist here, in this place: the middle of nowhere, by a cemetery on a borderland between civilisation and chaos, and between life and death.
I stopped inside the school bus by my car. All over the ceiling, blood read writing screams “ART is USELESS, ART is GREAT” and “ART is CHEAP”. Art used to be sold from in here, but now the metal is rusted and it’s filled with trash.
As I drove away, I stopped off again at that closed maple syrup souvenir barn. I wasn’t yet ready to rejoin the real world. I looked at that faded map, trying to figure out where I’d been and where I was going. I thought I could make out New Hampshire, but I wasn’t sure. I leaned against the wall and ate trail mix, feeling the sun on my face.
It didn’t matter: I knew that once I got back on the freeway, I’d have reception again and I’d figure out where I was headed.
Bread and Puppet Museum
Address: Route 122, Glover, VT 05839
Hours: Open June 1 to November 1, 10am-6pm