“Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic” - A Journey through the 100 Acre Wood

December 3, 2018 | By Sanya Mittal

With its immersive and interactive display, “Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic” at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) has already captured the hearts of many families. Displaying 200 works drawn primarily from the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the exhibit follows the legendary bear, Winnie the Pooh, from his humble beginnings in 1926 to his now world-renowned name. 


The entrance of the exhibit pays homage to Winnie the Pooh’s fame and to the global reach of the bear’s name. Variations of the story are present in a multitude of languages which each put their own spin on the characters but maintain the same fun and adventure. Some of the earliest Winnie the Pooh merchandise, such as small figurines and plushies, are on display alongside these storybooks. Disney picked up Winnie the Pooh in the 1960s and created the first animated film for the bear in 1966. Merchandise for the story skyrocketed after this film, with Disney making products directed towards viewers of all ages. 


Photos by Sanya Mittal

The exhibit then turns to focus on the origins of the story of Winnie the Pooh. It explores how the author, Alexander Alan (A.A) Milne, drew from his family life to create Winnie’s story. The character of  Christopher Robin is based on the author’s son Christopher. Christopher’s stuffed animals were the inspiration for the animals in the stories, while the name Winnie came from a docile bear at a zoo in Winnipeg, Canada, that the Milne family visited in 1926. Christopher named his stuffed bear Winnie the Pooh after her. The 100 Acre Wood, part of the land where Pooh and his friends went on their adventures, was heavily based on the Ashdown Forest, a forest near the Milne’s family home in the United Kingdom.


The illustrator for the story, E.H. Shepard, also drew inspiration from his life for his drawings. The exhibit explores how Milne and Shepard emphasized the human-like qualities of the animals in the story. Piglet was intended to be surprised at most times and Eeyore was deliberately drawn to appear downcast. Shepard’s sketches are shown in the exhibit, and the emotion on each animal's face is clear. In his writing, Milne went about his character development in a unique way. He didn’t describe their personalities, but let their actions define them. Rabbit, who was known to be practical and organized, is seen to always plan out activities, and be a stickler for the rules. Owl, quite the opposite, is scatterbrained, and often rambles about nonsense to the other animals.


Photos by Sanya Mittal

The most remarkable part of the exhibit is its immersive quality. As the visitor makes their way through the exhibit, it's as if they are going on an adventure with Winnie the Pooh. Despite the vast amount of information presented on the origins of the story, the exhibit is also intended to be exciting and fun for the children visiting it. A basketful of Winnie the Pooh stories rest near a bed mimicking Christopher's where visitors can sit and read. A recording of Milne reading the short story, “Pooh and Piglet go hunting, and nearly catch a Woozle”, can be listened to in the exhibit as well. This recording is the only one known of Milne reading from his Winnie the Pooh books. 


The largest room of the gallery houses a bridge that is similar to the Posingford Bridge from the stories. Visitors can cross the bridge and look over the edge at the screen beneath it, watching that river that appears to flow there. Children can go down a small slide, the quote “of course there’s the coming down too,” painted on the wall as they go down, alluding to when Tigger tried to climb a tree, only to realize he didn’t know how to get down. Sketches of the trees in the forests that the characters would play in cover the white walls of the exhibit, fully immersing the visitor into the land of Winnie the Pooh. Visitors can sit at a table full of blank paper and pencils, and draw whatever they would like, perhaps taking inspiration from the painted exhibit walls. A staircase, much like the one Christopher Milne would drag his teddy bear down, can be climbed. It can only be climbed halfway though, as an ode to Milne’s early poem “Halfway Down”. 


As the end of the exhibit is neared, a quote from one of Milne’s books indicates that though the exhibit may be over, the story of Winnie the Pooh will remain a classic that can be returned to for generations to come. 


This exhibit is on display in the Lois B. and Michael K. Torf Gallery (Gallery 184) at the Museum of Fine Arts until Jan. 6th, 2018.