For decades, Jim Henson's work has been a cornerstone of American childhoods. Tens of millions of children grew up watching Sesame Street or The Muppets on their family televisions, learning to read, count, and laugh with the help of Henson's lovable puppets.
Yet ironically, JHU senior Sharon Lee was almost completely unfamiliar with Henson's work prior to this summer, when she became an education intern for his exhibition at the Maryland Center for History and Culture (MCHC).
"Before I started this internship, I had no idea who he was," she admitted. "[My supervisor] was talking about 'Oh, there's a Jim Henson exhibition. You'll be working on that,' and I was like, 'Who's Jim Henson?'"
Now, Lee walks past display cases filled with his puppets every day.
"The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited" is a traveling exhibition currently on display at the MCHC. Originally developed by the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), its current iteration focuses on both Henson's work and his time in Maryland, where he grew up and attended college.
"[It's] a great fit for us here," Museum Learning Manager Deborah Wood said. "This exhibition as MoMI developed it is about Henson's whole career and his life as a visual storyteller, and we get to connect that to the stories that we tell about Maryland."
The 5,000-square-foot experience is filled with memorabilia from Henson's life, including photographs, sketches, storyboards, and puppets.
Lee, who studies cognitive science and Spanish, has spent most of her summer working on the exhibition's youth programs. This involves teaching children about Henson's work while helping them create their own paper-bag puppets, as well as developing learning materials and lesson plans for students who are unable to visit the museum in-person.
According to Wood, Lee's work has been invaluable in expanding the MCHC's outreach.
"As fabulous as it is that we can offer these field trip experiences, we also know that not every school or camp in Baltimore City and Baltimore County is going to be able to take the time or can afford to come and see this exhibition," she explained. "Sharon's main project is really to help us increase access and outreach so that that magic can go into classrooms."
Lee is also responsible for translating existing materials into Spanish, making the museum and its exhibits even more accessible for local residents.
According to Lee, who has dreamed of being a teacher since she was in third grade, interning at a museum has completely changed her perspective on what it means to be an educator.
"Working in this field has opened my eyes to all the career paths that exist in education," she said. "I didn't really know what other jobs existed outside [of] teaching in a classroom. … It's honestly such an eye-opening experience to do something completely different."
Lee's internship is part of the Johns Hopkins Community Impact Internships Program (CIIP), which pairs undergraduate students with local nonprofits and government agencies. This summer, CIIP placed 49 interns at 50 sites around Baltimore, offering work experience in fields such as health care, the arts, policy, and education. Outside of their internships, students involved in CIIP also attend weekly sessions called "Bites of Baltimore," where they learn more about the city's social issues.
According to Jasmine Blanks Jones, executive director for the JHU Center for Social Concern, working directly with community organizations allows students to develop a more nuanced view of Baltimore.
"Communities and leaders within communities are always already at work toward the solutions that they find valuable," Blanks Jones said. "Our job is to help our students be a part of the solutions on the terms that community partners have already established."
For Lee, this aspect of CIIP—directly supporting Baltimore and its community—is one of the best parts of her summer experience.
"This is our home," she said. "[It's] very fulfilling and very fun to engage with the community and to talk to different people. … I feel like I have a more broad understanding of the Baltimore community now."
Although Lee plans to graduate before next summer, making her ineligible for next year's CIIP internships, she strongly encourages other undergraduates to apply.
"If I had to describe it in two words, it would be a 'perspective change,'" she said. "I think unknowingly, I had a very closed-minded, one-sided view of what my future should look like and what that path should be. But then after CIIP, I'm really realizing that there's so many paths out there that I can take."
"The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited" will be open at the Maryland Center for History and Culture through Dec. 30. To learn more, visit the MCHC's website.