Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic is on display in the Royal Ontario Museum's fourth-floor contemporary-culture gallery.Paul Eekhoff/Courtesy of The Royal Ontario Museum

One large but largely unspoken tension in the contemporary museum is that between a research institution and a daycare centre. Take, for example, the Winnie-the-Pooh show that opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto just in time for March Break. On the one hand, it is a smart exhibition of delicate line drawings revealing how effectively illustrator E.H. Shepard supported A.A. Milne’s text for the classic children’s books, first published in the 1920s. On the other hand, it’s an indoor playground with a slide, a tent and a projected stream filled with animated Pooh sticks. How many harried parents, let alone romping pre-schoolers, are going to notice those small grey pencil sketches – Shepard didn’t add colour until new editions in the 1970s – or the show’s acute observations about relationships between picture and story?

During March Break, the gap between curatorial scholarship and children’s entertainment becomes particularly marked as many a family heads to the museum for reliable fun in unreliable weather. The museums depend on school holidays to plump visitation, and it’s no coincidence that Bloodsuckers, the ROM’s 2019 holiday-season draw, remains open until the last day of March Break. That show features a serious consideration of mosquitoes, leeches and vampire bats by ROM scientists, although you might not know it from the spooky posters. So, while younger siblings toddle upstairs to spend time with Pooh, the “ew, gross!” set will be happily engaged down in the ROM’s basement exhibition hall.

Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario, meanwhile, has contained its adult-minded show about the American photographer Diane Arbus in half of its temporary exhibition wing this spring. The other half features a display of vintage magic posters, a collection borrowed from Montreal’s McCord Museum and mounted as a crowd-pleasing exhibition that includes daily live magic shows. There are critical points to note about these posters, which the magicians used to both elevate and exoticize their profession, but teens might prefer to try the interactive screens where you can create your own with icons of devils, skulls or birds … if you can get a spot during the March Break crush.

One of the realities of taking kids to the museum is that you are usually doing it at the same time as everybody else. A critic has the privilege of seeing exhibits during private media tours; it can be instructive to go back at busier times to see how the public experiences them.

At the ROM, Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic has been installed in the fourth-floor contemporary-culture galleries, one of those tortured spaces that architect Daniel Libeskind bestowed on the ROM with the 2007 Crystal renovation. Here, a twisting installation seems guaranteed to create roadblocks, and while the interactive elements are cute – a bed for storytime, cupboards full of honey, a bridge to run across – expect to elbow others aside to get your turn.

Open this photo in gallery:

The exhibition includes playful elements such as a bridge for kids to run across.Paul Eekhoff/Courtesy of The Royal Ontario Museum

If, in the midst of the chaos, you are able to follow a sensitive display of 80 drawings from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which has toured this show around the world, then you are a better parent than I. My experience of museum exhibits in the late 2000s was the 20-minute forced march as my son dragged me toward the exit. He’s a sophisticated teen now, and on a recent visit to the ROM, it was my four-year-old nephew who kept interrupting due consideration of the fossils with pleas to proceed to the bat cave.

Of course, museums aim to appeal to all ages. As the institutions become increasingly aware of their responsibility toward the whole community, including its youngest members, they are continually expanding education programming, while dedicated play areas have become standard. And yet the foundation of a great museum is not a commitment to entertain the public but rather a duty to conserve and curate the treasures it holds on the public’s behalf. The Winnie-the-Pooh exhibit reveals how difficult it can be to do both simultaneously.

A perfect creative partnership

Open this photo in gallery:

Shepard starting adding colour to his Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations in the 1970s.Courtesy of manufacturer

If there is any writer who managed the trick of engaging adults and children at the same time, it was A.A. Milne. The Winnie-the-Pooh books, which grew out of the children’s verse that the successful British playwright and satirist had published in Punch magazine, tell simple stories of friendship, adventures and problem solving. Yet they are also stuffed with sly references that might serve to revive drowsy parents reading aloud at bedtime. My favourite adultism is TRESPASSERS W, a broken nameplate that Piglet says belonged to his grandfather Trespassers Will, short for Trespassers William. Only adults would understand the sign is actually a truncated version of TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.

In assembling a selection of the 270 original E.H. Shepard drawings in the collection of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum for an exhibition now touring to the Royal Ontario Museum, curator Julius Bryant offers a particularly deft reading of how the illustrator addressed Milne’s wit. Young children, he points out, can’t grasp irony and sarcasm, so Shepard lent a hand. When Eeyore observes, with comic understatement, that his field is neither hot nor stuffy at three o’clock in the morning, Shepard chimes in with a more direct illustration, showing Eeyore in his freezing field blanketed in snow.

Similarly, Shepard can introduce the young reader to dramatic irony when his illustrations allow the child to delightedly recognize Eeyore’s missing tail, hanging from Owl’s front door as a bell pull, before Pooh, the bear of very little brain, has made the connection in the text.

Open this photo in gallery:

Pooh's design was based on a Steiff teddy bear that belonged to Shepard's son.Courtesy of manufacturer

Bryant argues that Milne, who had tried out several other illustrators at Punch, found the perfect creative partner in Shepard, an artist highly tuned to the animals’ character types and to the text’s nuanced play between the real and the imaginary. Famously, Milne’s stories were inspired by his son Christopher’s toys as were Shepard’s illustrations – with one notable exception: The figure of Pooh is based on a rounder Steiff teddy bear that belonged to the illustrator’s own son. Christopher’s bear was a slimmer model, but examples of both types are on display, as are reproductions, created for the film Goodbye Christopher Robin, of the full set including the tiger, donkey and kangaroo. (The New York Public Library, which holds the original Milne toys, declined to lend them.)

The toys are important because their influence shows up in the drawings: Pooh’s arms and legs are articulated at the joint in the manner of a teddy; Eeyore is visibly stuffed. On the other hand, the know-it-all Owl and bossy Rabbit, the two adult-like characters, were Milne’s additions, and Shepard drew those animals from nature, or at least taxidermy. These fine distinctions tended to be lost in the more blobby Disney versions launched in animated films of the 1960s, which also clothed all the animals. The V&A, by the way, found it preferable not to work with Disney on a show dedicated to Shepard’s legacy, secured when the illustrator donated his drawings to the design museum a few years before his death in 1976. Aside from a single stuffed yellow bear in a display of global merchandise, the cruder Disney Pooh is refreshingly absent.

Open this photo in gallery:

The exhibition features small grey pencil sketches such as this one from 1926.Courtesy of manufacturer

The ROM has added a small section about the Canadian animal for which Pooh was named: the black bear Winnie, short for Winnipeg, that wound up in the London Zoo after Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, on his way to the front, donated the regimental mascot he had bought for $20 in White River, Ont. in 1914. The story goes that when Christopher saw Winnie on a trip to the zoo, he renamed his teddy bear, who initially appears as Edward Bear in one of Milne’s early verses.

It’s these kind of intriguing details about the history of the character and his representation in popular culture that you can learn on a close reading of this exhibit – if the kids will let you.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic continues at the Royal Ontario Museum to Aug. 3.

Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe