One of the cardboard U.S. Postal Service mailboxes that danced outside the Convention Center as election votes were being counted in November will be featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.
The mailbox puppets — created and designed by Spiral Q, an organization that uses art, puppetry, and street theater to advocate for equity and inclusion — were a viral sensation as all eyes were on Philadelphia to finish counting its mail-in ballots in the 2020 election.
Spiral Q, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit founded in 1996, is known for its “larger than life” papier-mâché puppets, banners, and signs used for educational purposes and in local protests and parades. The small organization, run by Jennifer Turnbull and Liza Goodell, was thrilled to see its work recognized by the country, and now the museum.
“I’ve sometimes felt like an outsider with this weirdo job, so to be validated in this way and see national attention, it’s kind of unreal to me,” said Goodell.
“It feels like that end zone touchdown dance,” said Turnbull.
The Smithsonian confirmed that the donation was in progress but declined to give further details.
It’s unclear what exhibit the puppet will be a part of, but a curator told Spiral Q the mailbox was an “instant artifact of the history of the 2020 election,” Goodell said. They were told the piece would go alongside objects owned by presidents, activists, campaigns, and voters to tell a story of democracy and American history.
Organizers and educators often contact Spiral Q for assistance in making statement art pieces for various campaigns. In the case of the mailboxes, Vote That Jawn, a campaign that works to engage 18-year-old and first-time voters at the polls, reached out for voter education materials. Spiral Q ended up making puppets of the mailboxes, a voting booth, and an oversize mail-in ballot to be used in videos and pop-up events across the city.
“The puppet just makes everything understandable,” said Turnbull. “It synthesizes and breaks down super intense and complicated issues.”
Then the election came, and vote counting dragged on for days as cities including Philadelphia tabulated a historic number of mail-in ballots. The scene outside the Convention Center — where votes were being counted inside — became one of protest and celebration.
As the count dragged through the night, a dance party commenced, with Spiral Q’s puppets in the center.
Three of the mailboxes, as well as a Philadelphia City Hall, the U.S. Capitol building, and “The Battle Isn’t Over” banner, danced to “Macarena” and other songs.
After the Postal Service’s roller coaster of a year — unprecedented delays, employee shortages, and service cuts that some worried would slow the on-time delivery of mail ballots — and the intensely competitive election year, the joyous scene resonated with millions of Americans. Videos of the moment went viral, landing millions of views and a feature on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
Days later, the Smithsonian reached out to ask if Spiral Q would be willing to donate the mailbox puppet. In the spring, the puppet was packed up and sent to D.C.
Alongside artist Donna Oblongata, Spiral Q also helped create a massive bald eagle that glided atop a celebratory crowd in Center City after Joe Biden was declared the winner. A massive Trans Unicorn made in 2018 also made an appearance.
Over the years, Spiral Q has amassed more than 2,000 puppets of all sizes, which Turnbull said offers a look into Philadelphia communities’ advocacy campaigns and struggles. Years ago, they were presented as a puppet museum, but now they’re housed in a storage facility in Phoenixville, after the West Philadelphia warehouses previously used were sold to become apartment buildings. At the moment, the organization is struggling to find an affordable space to work.