Wilmington, South Australia, is a small, picturesque town at the base of the Flinders Ranges. The quiet farming community is known for sheep, wheat, barley—and puppets. In fact, Wilmington is home to more puppets than people.
Opened by Brian and Rosemary Whitehead in 2007, the Sansouci Puppet Museum holds the largest private collection of puppets in the country. It’s the only museum of its kind in Australia. Whitehead’s interest in puppets was a happy accident that began after a near-fatal stroke left him hospitalized for several months. While in recovery, Whitehead was encouraged by a fellow patient named Geoff, a trained puppeteer, to help him put on shows for the children’s ward. The experience was surprisingly therapeutic for Whitehead, who credits the art form with helping him regain coordination of his left side.
Upon the passing of Geoff, Whitehead learned that his friend and mentor had willed him his puppets on the condition that he use them. So he did. Whitehead began a new career staging puppet shows for kids and providing puppet therapy to mental health patients and recovering drug addicts. He also embarked on an around-the-world adventure, collecting puppets and learning new puppeteering styles everywhere he went.
The museum now holds over 1,000 puppets in its collection. Marionettes dance from the rafters above wall-to-wall shelves of every imaginable puppet style. The collection includes ventriloquist dummies, hand, finger, shadow, rod, and boxing puppets.
Antique Punch and Judy dolls take swings at each other, while ancient Indian Kathputli figures play the pungi, floating on billowing skirts of purple and gold. Many are recognizable childhood friends such as Lamb Chop, Pinocchio, and Charlie McCarthy. Others are the likes of childhood foes such as Slappy from Goosebumps, with his piercing eyes and sinister grin.
The goal of the Sansouci Puppet Museum is to preserve the art of puppeteering and, as Geoff did for Whitehead all those years ago, encourage people to take up the craft. For those so inspired, the Whiteheads make and sell their own puppets. Whether or not you’re the next Jim Henson or Shari Lewis, the museum is an awe-inspiring space where one can reconnect with their inner child and enjoy the magic of a good old fashion puppet show.
Know Before You Go
The Sansouci Puppet Museum's hours vary, so it's recommended to call ahead to make sure that the owners are home and to arrange a visit: (08) 8667 5356. Admission is a gold coin ($1 AUD) donation.
Many of the puppets displayed are historical relics and may depict racial stereotypes. Visitor discretion is advised.