On Tuesday afternoon, a handful of lucky, little visitors were invited to the Museum of Fine Arts to attend a sneak peak of the museum’s newest exhibit, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, which opened to the public Saturday.
Before entering the gallery, those attending were given a name tag and a Winnie-the-Pooh sticker of their choice, and led to a tea party across from the second floor rotunda. Sprawled out on grass carpet, children snacked on blue balloon cookies, “Tigger” pretzels dipped in orange yogurt and drizzled in chocolate, and pigs in a blanket.
Wearing a print Winnie-the-Pooh dress, Lily reclined on a bright orange pillow and read quietly to herself, pausing occasionally to take a sip out of a glass of chocolate milk. Her favorite part of the exhibit was the slide.
“The goal was always to make the exhibit interactive,” said Meghan Melvin, the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Curator of Design at the Museum of Fine Arts. “We want to make the imaginary world come alive.”
First published in 1926 and translated into more than 50 languages, Winnie-the-Pooh is one of the most beloved children’s book characters of all time. Working in collaboration with the curatorial staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the MFA collected nearly 200 original drawings, proofs and early editions, letters, photographs, and ephemera to unearth the history of the iconic bear.
“Everybody recognizes the name Winnie-the-Pooh, but many people don’t necessarily connect with the origins,” Melvin explained. “And so that was the main drive behind this exhibit, to connect people with the real people and real places of this amazing, enduring story.”
A trail of giant blue balloons hang from the ceiling outside the gallery, tempting visitors to follow. “Balloons are an intrinsic part of the story, and we really wanted to create an amazing bright and engaging welcome from a distance,” Melvin said. “But I want to emphasize that they are made of fiberglass, not latex,” she added with a laugh. “We made sure to be environmentally friendly.”
When visitors enter the exhibition, they step into the pages of the book. Broken up into six sections, the gallery is designed like a home, with winding hallways and secret passageways that take visistor’s from the childhood bedroom of Christopher Milne to the “100 Aker Woods.”
The gallery opens to cases filled with ephemera from the 1920s to the present, to introduce the concept of Winnie-the-Pooh as a global phenomenon.
“Say his name no matter where you go and people will recognize him, although he manifests in all sorts of different forms,” Melvin said.
Winding the corner, visitors then enter Christopher Milne’s childhood bedroom. Looking at the bed and telephone attached to the wall, Violet put her tiny hands to her cheeks and emitted an elongated “Wooah.”
Gazing down at the eager and antsy faces of children squirming in front of her, Melvin smiled and said, “Normally a museum tells you what you can’t do, but today I am going to tell you what you can do. You are welcome to sit on the bed.”
Next, visitors moved to the countryside, to get acquainted with the artist and illustrator of the books, E. H. Shepard. Pages from Shepard’s original sketchbooks line the walls, along with drawings for the original end papers, including the infamous map of the “100 Aker Wood,” the dominant setting for the books.
Melvin then lead visitors around the corner to the largest and most interactive part of the exhibit, titled “What About a Story.” This section highlights the themes that develop through the books, which appear on the wall panels and hang from the ceiling.
“We move from photographs to drawings, to the imagined world,” Melvin explained.
In the center of the room visitors can cross over Poohsticks Bridge, and look at animated images of fish swimming in the imaginary stream below. A bell hangs from the wall, and a secret slide is tucked into a tunnel-like passageway in the left hand corner of the space. Games and interactive activities line the room, and children quickly gathered to the large white picnic table, to begin writing their own stories.
“We have turned the sound down for you today so we can all hear each other, but when you come back to the show, on a typical day, there is a lot of ambient sound including rain, and buzzing bees,” said Melvin. Among the lively noises is a 1929 recording of Milne reading Winnie-the-Pooh.
A staircase dominates the next gallery, invoking the famous words at the beginning of the book, “Here comes Christopher Robin down the stairs, bump, bump, bump, coming to hear his bedtime stories.”
Dozens of illustrations line the walls, and Melvin encouraged visitors to take their time and look at them up close.
“You can explore in great detail the subtlety and of Shepard’s illustrations and also really begin to understand how complex they are and how much information and emotion and movement and character are infused in them,” she said. “This is where a lover a Shepard can really dive deep in this space.”
The exhibition ends with the section, “Pooh Goes to Print,” which explores the publication and transformation of Winnie-the-Pooh in literature over the years. Copies of first editions line the walls, and a printing block sample is set out for visitors to touch.
“We are really excited for the public to interact with this exhibit, the timing is perfect,” Melvin said.
Featured Image By Isabel Fenoglio / Heights Editor