“The Simpsons” Exhibit at Tacoma Art Museum is the first of its kind
We’re all familiar with the yellow, cartoon family that has graced our television sets for the past 30 years — back when our screens were rounded, and we didn’t have the luxury of streaming services.
But, without fail, we could switch on those antiquated, boxy devices and enjoy reruns of The Simpsons almost nightly. The nostalgia runs deep at the new exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum, Bart at TAM: Animating America’s Favorite Family.
This installation is the first of its kind: an exhibit dedicated entirely to the animation of The Simpsons. It features approximately 150 animation cels — transparent sheets with different layers of an animated scene, used before animation was converted to digital production — from the collection of animation-enthusiast Bill Heeter.
Historically, animation cels were hand-drawn and painted over. Some examples of the cels at Bart at TAM were of an illustration of the interior of Moe’s Tavern or of something as small as Milhouse’s eyes, so that they could shift in a scene. To give some context, it usually took upwards of 24,000 cels to create one 22-minute episode of The Simpsons. Ever since season 13, the show has been animated digitally, nixing the need that much physical labor.
This exhibit, in a sense, is a lesson in the art history of animation. With interactive sections where visitors can try their hand at illustrating The Simpsons characters or stack multiple cels to create a full picture, this is an immersive education in the methods of animation in its original form.
The exhibit itself feels immersive in another way; the bright colors and displays seemingly pulled straight from the screen to make visitors feel as if they’re walking into Springfield, the fictional town where the Simpsons live. Curator Margaret Bullock said her favorite part of the exhibit so far is seeing visitors’ faces light up when they see the exhibit for the first time. She gave kudos to exhibition designer Ben Wildenhaus for his steady stream of amazing ideas and flawless execution.
Bullock also spoke on the Pacific Northwest influence of the show. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, before moving to the South Sound to attend The Evergreen State College. Many of the episodes have references to his formative years in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the displays at Bart at TAM even includes a joke at Seattle’s expense (typical South Sound comedy) from Krusty the Clown.
“To me, there are so many episodes that have that sort of Northwest inflection,” said Bullock, who has been watching The Simpsons since it began. But part of that is due to the extremely accessible nature of the show, she explained. There are jokes for the South Sound, the Midwest, and the East Coast. There are jokes for kids and jokes for adults.
“There’s something everyone can relate to,” Bullock said. “This show really brought animation back to prime-time.”
The exhibit will run through the end of October, but could be extended based on popularity.