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Children’s literature inspires art shows at MFA and Cape Ann Museum

An Ernest H. Shepard illustration from “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic.”Ernest Howard Shepard/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The first thing seen by a visitor to “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic” at the Museum of Fine Arts is a set of blue balloons outside the exhibition proper. Clearly, this is not your standard art show.

The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 6, bears that out. Yes, there’s art on the wall, and very handsome it is, too: Ernest H. Shepard’s classic illustrations to accompany A.A. Milne’s texts. There’s also a bell that can be rung — a staircase to climb and slide to descend — replicas of Christopher Milne’s stuffed animals (Christopher Milne being the inspiration for Christopher Robin in the Pooh stories) — wallpaper on some walls — curves where you might expect angles — and, beneath conventional wall texts, smaller, green-colored ones for shorter, younger visitors.


“Interactivity in the show is really important,” said Meghan Melvin, the museum’s Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf curator of design. “We want people to feel welcome.”

In laying out the exhibition, which originated at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the MFA was alert to there being a wide range of ages among visitors. “Yes, we are very conscious of this,” Melvin said. “This show, in particular, is tied to our strategic plan. We are making a much more concerted effort to present exhibitions and various opportunities for multi-generational families. This is a show that visitors of all ages can enjoy.”

It’s not the first MFA show inspired by children’s literature. Two years ago, there was “Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey,” organized by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst. Planning has already begun for a 2020 show related to children’s literature. What might its subject be? Leading a recent tour of the Pooh show, Melvin and MFA exhibition designers Kyla Hygysician and Quinn Papazian smilingly declined to answer.


“With any show,” Hygysician said of the Pooh exhibition. “we want the art to look its best. We want that here, too. But this is [also] a really holistic environment.”

How holistic? “When we saw kids playing in here for the first time, I felt really pleased,” Hygysician said. “They were walking into the book. It really felt like that.”

Although the appeal of Pooh is global, Milne and Shepard were veddy, veddy English. The author-illustrator Virginia Lee Burton (1909-68) was born in Newton Centre and spent most of her adult life in Gloucester. So the Cape Ann Museum’s “The Little House: Her Story” is a kind of homecoming. The show opens Nov. 3. Burton’s son plans to attend the opening.

Besides “The Little House” (1942), Burton’s best-known books include “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” (1939), “Katy and the Big Snow” (1943), and “Life Story” (1962).

Last year was the 75th anniversary of publication of “The Little House.” The book tells the story of the namesake building. Standing in an open field, it slowly finds itself surrounded by other structures.

Like the Pooh stories, Burton’s books have global appeal — and the exhibition is a product of that appeal. “The Little House” first appeared in Japan in 1954. Perhaps because its story resonated with readers familiar with the high-density transformation of Tokyo, it won a wide following among Japanese readers. And the new exhibition originated with Tokyo’s Gallery A4, which borrowed some of the items in it from the Cape Ann collection.


“The Little House” is “a story of the environment and things changing,” said Ronda Faloon, in a telephone interview last month. Faloon is director of the Cape Ann Museum. “So reading it as a child is different from reading it as an adult — and reading it now, because of the environment. Some children’s books go out of date. This one stands the test of time.”

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.