MASON CITY | When people visit the Bil Baird Puppet Collection at the Charles H. MacNider Art Museum these days, they often say, "These are brand-new puppets!" said curator Mara Linskey-Deegan.
But they aren't "new" new. They are puppets that have been in storage a long time and are now being displayed, thanks to a better archival system.
Last year the museum completed a project to improve the preservation of the puppets that Baird, a Mason City native, and his wife, Cora, donated to the MacNider during the mid-1980s.
The puppets Baird created were used in films, including "The Sound of Music," as well as TV shows and commercials.
The MacNider Museum began preparing for the preservation project in 2011. The physical labor started in 2012.
Each of the 550 pieces, including props, in the Baird collection was photographed and had a condition report done on it.
Then each piece was rehoused in a new storage box with acid-free tissues and foam supports so they could be stored according to museum standards, said Linskey-Deegan.
Two paid interns, Sarah Carlson and Dimitria Klein, did much of the work.
The project was paid for through a series of grants from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa and the Farrer Endowment Foundation.
Only 15 percent to 20 percent of the Baird collection can be displayed at one time.
The puppets not on display are stored in pull-out cabinets beneath the display cases, just as they were before. However, the new storage boxes with the acid-free paper do a better job of keeping them from deteriorating.
Linskey-Deegan said the puppets now can be rotated more often. The MacNider also has created several new puppet displays.
Included in the puppets that the public has not seen before are two dogs and a cat used in commercials for Hartz pet products in the 1970s and 1980s.
Having a photo database of all the puppets is a big help in arranging displays because the museum staff no longer has to get boxes out of storage and open them to recall exactly what each puppet looks like, Linskey-Deegan said.
A few puppets have their photos posted to the museum's website. Linskey-Deegan said more will be posted in the future as part of an ongoing project to create virtual exhibits of various museum collections. A few other virtual exhibits are already online.
Some of the puppets in the Baird collection are from the 1920s, while some newer ones are from the early 1980s. The bulk of the collection is from the 1940s through the 1970s.
Considering the age of the puppets, they are in stable condition and still able to be displayed, according to Linskey-Deegan.
Many of the bodies of the marionettes are made of wood so "they have a lot of stability to them," she said.
However, a few did have parts missing, such as hands and feet. Linskey-Deegan said this is because Baird, who had a puppet theater in New York, would often change the puppets for whatever show was coming up next.
For example, he would take off a hand so he could replace it with another if he needed a puppet to be pointing at something.
"He wasn't thinking they would be in a museum for years to come," Linskey-Deegan said.