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Muppets and Other Memorabilia: Public History Alum Curates NYC Museum’s Collections

Jannette Reichel.

These days, Jannette Reichel, collections manager at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, is busy documenting and cataloging a massive donation from the family of puppeteer Jim Henson.

The pieces will eventually become a permanent exhibit at the popular museum in Queens, which celebrates the art, history and technology of movies, television shows and digital media. Reichel spends her days helping to preserve puppets, memorabilia and other items related to Henson’s career.

“I’ve been working on the restoration of different puppets and that has absolutely been the coolest thing,” says Reichel. She says she can’t share any specifics of her current project, but they include favorite characters from anybody who grew up watching shows like “Sesame Street” or “The Muppets.”

Reichel has known since middle school that she wanted to spend her career working in museums. The path she took to get there was circuitous — but purposeful.

As a child, family vacations often centered around trips across the country to various historic destinations and other sites. A visit to a museum in Mesa Verde in Colorado was especially memorable. She remembers flipping through the museum’s catalog.

“They made the people who lived there very relatable to me at the time,” she says. “I thought that was really cool.”

A poster of the movie, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which is featured at the Museum of the Moving Images.

After getting a degree in anthropology and art history at Northwestern University, Reichel, 37, landed in Raleigh and took a job at NCSU Libraries, where she could learn about cataloguing — a skill she figured that both librarians and museums staffers need to have.

She also volunteered at the City of Raleigh Museum to bolster her resume and work experience. And she went back to school, earning a master’s degree in public history from NC State in 2006.

After graduating, Reichel moved to New York, looking for more volunteer opportunities to advance her career, including a stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

More than 17 years after earning her undergraduate degree, Reichel landed her first full-time, paid museum job at the Jewish Museum in New York. She worked her way up from a temporary website project to a permanent job as a cataloger and, eventually, the museum’s visual resources coordinator, handling photo shoots and other duties.

“It was fantastic,” says Reichel, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Brad. “I was very, very excited. And for it to be in New York, it’s a very exciting place to be.”

She made the move to the Museum of the Moving Image in 2013. She now takes care of the entire collection and works with the museum’s collection database.

As part of her job, she documents a random assemblage of items — from plastic Happy Meal figurines to two complete sets from the popular TV series Mad Men for a recent exhibit to, her favorite, the annotated script of the movie, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

“It’s such a terrible movie, but I highly recommend it,” she says of the 1964 science fiction fantasy comedy film.

The challenge, she says, is working with such a wide variety of items and caring for pieces that can’t be replaced. In an exhibit called Arcade Classics: Video Games from the Collection, which recently closed, visitors could actually touch and play video games from across the decades.

“Working with these video games has been very challenging because the parts that make them up, they aren’t making them anymore or they burn out really quickly,” she says. “ … That’s the tricky part of museums and working with multimedia collections.”

But she’s happy for the opportunity to take on the challenge.

“I love what I do,” Reichel says. “It’s fun. It’s one of those things where if I wasn’t doing this, I would be volunteering to do the same thing.”