A day at the ‘Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a classic’ exhibition (Victoria and Albert Museum)

 

sam_0232.jpgWinnie the Pooh has always been such a huge part of my life. When I was born, I was given a Winnie the Pooh teddy. He was quite long, but with a bit of a tummy, he had a calm face and he carried a little ‘hunny’ pot. With Pooh always came HunnyBunny, a small little rabbit toy that had also been around since day one.

The two of them always came everywhere with me; on trips out, down to the shops, if we had teddy bears picnics in the garden Pooh was obviously a distinguished guest. Pooh lived with me in our first house and moved to Germany with us when we moved when I was six. He also came with us when we moved to Scotland three years later. HunnyBunny and Pooh have lived in four houses, three countries and have seen me through some joyful memories. They were a comfort in sadder times. When I left for university however, they stayed behind, not necessarily due to embarrassment, but moreso for their own safety.

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Waking up on Easter morning to a Winnie the Pooh Easter egg!
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When we were little. Pooh can be seen in the back.
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When Pooh had a ‘hunny’ pot…

 

So why, I hear you ask, are you writing a blog post about the life story of two stuffed animals? Well first of all, I’m a big kid who still finds joy in everything that claims it is ‘for kids’. Give me a dolls house and you’ll soon find me cross-legged on the floor rearranging the furniture so that it has the best possible feng shui. I see faces in trees and I find miniature versions of anything adorable. I will always attempt the monkey bars at a park even though it’s been years since I have been able to swing freely without my feet touching the ground. You see where I’m going with this? I’m trying to avoid adulthood as much as I possibly can.

The second reason I am taking the time to write this, is that I recently paid a visit to the ‘Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic’ exhibition in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. I have visited the V&A a number of times and they always have some great temporary exhibitions that are worth visiting. This was no exception.

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As I entered the exhibition, it was like walking into a Winnie the Pooh storybook. It was full of colour, with sketches of the characters and giant quotes on the walls. At the beginning there was an exhibit showing the change in the Winnie the Pooh and friends merchandise over the years, ranging from lunch boxes, teacups presented to the Queen and stuffed animals. It was so interesting to see what the original Winnie the Pooh bear looked like before Disney developed the stories. Next to me as I was admiring the many objects on display, I noticed an older couple who must have been in their eighties. They were so excited to see the original toys and sketches, the lady almost in tears. It made me smile. This was their childhood too.

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Opposite this was a set of steps along which the following words were written on the wall, as is if they were coming down the stairs.

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This takes inspiration from and combines two of pieces of writing by A.A Milne. The first from his collection of writings titled “When we were very young” published in 1924.

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The other is from Milne’s second book “Winnie the Pooh” in 1926.

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An information board next to this tells us that when Christopher Robin was young, he would often come down the stairs to ask his father for a story, dragging his poor bear with him. When the story was finished, he would often sit on the step halfway up the stairs, not wanting to go to bed, much preferring to stay with his Father for another story. The step halfway up and halfway down represented the return to the real world and away from the world of imagination and stories. It is this image that is seen at the very beginning of “Winnie the Pooh.” Visitors to the exhibition are invited to go to the step halfway up and halfway down to take photos and to imagine themselves as Christopher Robin.

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Throughout the exhibition are also the original drawings of the characters drawn by E.H. Shepard. The inspiration for the look of Winnie the Pooh came from Shepard’s son’s bear Growler and the additional characters were based on Christopher Robin’s toys. It was incredible to see these drawings, many of which had several versions as Shepard altered his designs before the final character drawings were complete. “Milne was keen for Shepard to base his illustrations on the real toys, as their pose and their manner had fed into Milne’s characterisation of them. Piglet’s look of ‘mild surprise’ became anxiety in Milne’s stories and Eeyore, by this time five years old and with a worn-out neck, literally looked downcast.” (Victoria and Albert Museum)

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The exhibition also has a series of original photographs including many of the Milne family and one of the Canadian black bear ‘Winnie’ which Christopher Robin often saw during his trips to London Zoo and who was the inspiration behind Winnie the Pooh’s name.

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The drawings and photos that really stood out to me where the ones of ‘Pooh’s House’ that took inspiration from a large walnut tree in the Milne’s garden. The tree was hollow inside and due to an opening in the tree trunk it was possible for Christopher Robin to climb inside. In his childhood memoir ‘The Enchanted Places’ Christopher Robin Milne writes;

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“It was the perfect tree house for a five year old. I could climb inside and sit on the soft, crumbly floor. The walls were cracks and the ledges where things could be put; and high above my head was a green and blue ceiling of leaves and sky. Pooh and I claimed it. It was Pooh’s house really, but there was plenty of room for us both inside and here we came to play our small, quiet, happy games together.”

(Milne C.R., 1974)

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Shepard’s sketch based on the above photo

These pictures took me straight back to my own childhood when we would go to a park near to where my Nan lives and it there was the famous (or famous to me at least) Pooh tree. Just like in the sepia coloured photo of Christopher Robin, my tree had a hole in the front big enough for four-year-old me to climb inside and I could sit in it for ages, pretending it was my little house. Revisiting the park years later, it’s hard to imagine I could ever fit in that little gap in the tree trunk, but it’s still fun to try!

 

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One of the highlights of the exhibition was the interactive bridge. Many children ran back and forth across it and climbed up to throw an invisible stick into the water where quotes would appear, seemingly to float downstream and appear on the other side of the bridge. The concept of playing Poohsticks first appeared in ‘The House at Pooh Corner’ published in 1928. The bridge in which A.A Milne and Christopher Robin first played the game, which was the inspiration behind the game appearing in Milne’s books, can be found in Ashdown Forrest, the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood. It was built in 1907 and was originally called Posingford Bridge, however in the seventies it was rebuilt, officially opened by a 59-year-old Christopher Robin and renamed Poohsticks Bridge.

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The original bridge

For me, playing Poohsticks is a treasured game played with family and friends from a young age and even still today, whenever we have come across a bridge that looks like it has appeared from the pages of a Winnie the Pooh story. Just up the hill from the house I moved into at eight years old, is a wooden bridge that to me, whether I was eight or eighteen, has always been a Poohsticks bridge.

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My poohsticks bridge
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Seeing if I’ve still got the technique

 

As I was at the museum alone, I hovered for a while watching various people have their photo taken on the bridge. I felt a bit silly standing there wishing I had someone to take my photo. When I censed an opportunity that did not have too many children running around I asked an exhibition guide if he “could possibly take my photo.” He was extremely willing and as I gave him my camera I said “I suppose you’re never too old.” “No never!” he replied, gesturing with a look to the same old couple that were next to me earlier in the museum who had now caught up and were beside themselves with joy looking at the bridge.

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Eeyore’s House

The whole exhibition was beautifully laid out. There was a lot of information and pieces to look at, but there was also lots to keep young children (and young at heart adults) entertained from little doorways to walk through, a bed to read stories in, a replica of Eeyore’s house, a slide and a drawing area. Quotes from the stories were also displayed in a really visual way; similar to how they were displayed in the book.

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A tiny doorway

 

 

In all honesty, I was actually quite sad when I had walked all the way round the exhibition, because I didn’t want it to be the end. I found myself dawdling nearer and nearer to the exit, reading every piece of information I could. I took one last look at the people mesmerised by the sketches of Pooh and his friends, and it made me so happy to see that all these people, some who had known these characters for decades and some who were just getting to know him now, loved these characters just as much as I did. I made my way to the exit, but as I did I heard this quiet little voice behind me say;

“But of course, it isn’t really Goodbye, because the Forest will always be there…and anybody who is friendly with bears can find it.”

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It was the little old lady who I had somehow found myself bumping into at various points of the exhibition. She was reading the quote right above the exit. She turned to her husband and smiled. She took his hand and then they followed me through the door.

 

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So what happened to my Pooh bear? Well, he is a bit tattered now. His ‘hunny’ pot was ferociously ripped off by a four year old and he has a big hole in his tummy where the material has just worn away from being hugged and loved for years. At some point maybe just over ten years, I must have bought him the waistcoat he wears now, but that has since become tattered too. As I came back to my family home, I went to find HunnyBunny and Pooh. They have always been a little welcoming committee sitting on my bed, ready for my return. They might be a bit tattered, and their limbs might not have as much stuffing as they used to, but I will never, ever get rid of them. If this exhibition has taught me one thing, it’s that we might grow old, but we can still find joy in the things we loved as children and for me, it brings peace of mind that I’ve got years to go yet before I can no longer consider myself a big kid.

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