Words cannot express how excited I was when I received the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Newsletter informing me of an upcoming exhibition on Winnie-the-Pooh. Running from 9 December 2017 until 8 April 2018, I was determined to visit, not only from an educational perspective – actually, not at all from an educational perspective. This was for the child in me. I love everything Winnie-the-Pooh, and I’m so lucky to have lived near his original home in the, Ashdown Forest, visiting several times.
Children’s Literature in 2018
I feel so blessed to be studying children’s literature in a year of such exciting developments in the field. 2018 will see releases of children’s classics such as Peter Rabbit, Little Women, another Dr Seuss movie AND of course, Christopher Robin. I couldn’t be more thrilled. For years these classic and yet ever-contemporary subjects have lain undeveloped; finally, they are being brought to a modern audience, and, whilst I die a little inside seeing these beautiful characters in CGI (give me a plasticine Noddy, Postman Pat or Thomas the Tank Engine any day), it is incredible to hear people talking about Beatrix Potter, Louisa May Alcott and A.A. Milne once again.
Like many others my age, I was bought up in the nineties on Winnie-the-Pooh. The friendly yellow bear, his array of woodland (and, of course, jungle – I don’t know of many woodland Tigers and Kangaroos) friends, and the relatable character of Christopher Robin were a strong feature in my household. My mother collected classic Pooh memorabilia, Disney Pooh memorabilia; we had McDonalds toy collections in full, framed watercolours, story books, poetry collections, videos (later DVDs), stationery, bookmarks, bedding, masses of teddy bears – the list is endless. But it wasn’t until recently that I’ve really taken an interest into the author and story behind what has been such a staple feature of, incredibly, my entire life.
What strikes me most about Winnie-the-Pooh’s construction is the simplicity in the initial and seemingly simple development of this idol.
Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, was born in 1920, and come 1924, Milne found himself writing a collection of children’s poems entitled When We Were Very Young. He had these illustrated by Punch colleague and cartoonist, E.H. Shepard. Winnie-the-Pooh’s namesake is Winnipeg the Bear, an American Black Bear donated to London Zoo by Harry Coebourn, a Canadian Lieutenant, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Having visited the zoo with his father and becoming so enamoured with the bear, Christopher Robin changed the name of his own favourite teddy bear to Winnie. You can see the statue of Winnie the Black Bear at London Zoo today. Pooh, according to many sources, was the name of a swan. E.H. Shepard based his drawings on his own son’s bear Growler, and thus, Winnie-the-Pooh was born.
Milne extracted what he could from his home setting of the Ashurst Wood to suit his purpose; little did he know that in this uniting of the real with elements of the extraordinary, he was creating a tangible magic environment for children across the world. It is the physical elements of A.A. Milne’s creation that keeps Winnie-the-Pooh so exciting for children still to this day, and the exhibition certainly captured this.
As soon as I entered the gallery, the child inside of me squealed with excitement. Classic illustrated Pooh cut-outs hung from the ceilings amongst the iconic blue balloons and colourful umbrellas. Milne’s vocabulary filled the room, swirling across the walls, as though you were walking through the pages of the book in real life. Little hidey-holes appeared within certain letters where children could hide; they could sneak through Piglet’s living room, climb the stairs and slide their way out of the treehouse, reading a part of a book as they went.
The museum recreated Pooh Bridge, with an interactive vocabulary river. Letters came together to create words and dispersed, carried with the flow of the river, which also dragged the pooh sticks, of course.
Original illustrations, notes and letters sent between Milne and Shepard lined the walls, some smudged, some dirty, all deliciously authentic. It was incredibly exciting to be so close to the artwork that began the phenomenon.
It was a wonderful display, which certainly demonstrated the importance and impact of Milne’s work in the history of children’s literature and the necessity of reading for children today; not only in the development of their imaginations, but in their appreciation for classic works. It would have been easy for the V&A to include interactivity via television screens and tablets, however, the only screen present depicted pictures of text from the books; I heard no complaints.
It was no surprise that this exhibition was sold out – incredibly informative for adults, natural, educational and interactive fun for children. Here’s hoping for a Peter Rabbit exhibition next.
P.S. Isn’t the V & A just so beautiful? Go! Even just for a coffee!