More than words: The V&A’s multi-sensory celebration of Pooh

Back in October half-term, for the first time ever, we made the long but eagerly awaited journey to the Roald Dahl Museum. Outside of the obvious excitement of sitting on an Enormous Crocodile bench, and them finding out they’re as tall as Matilda and a quarter of Roald Dahl, what became apparent to us all was the sheer brilliance and inseparable relationship of illustrator and author. How Dahl’s compelling characters simply couldn’t leave the page without Quentin Blake’s spirited drawings. It is this special sentiment of partnership and collaboration, that runs throughout the V&A’s brand new exhibition on Winnie-the-Pooh. The first in almost 40 years.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic is a journey through the evolution and inspiration behind this charming British bear, as well as the lives of creators A.A.Milne and E.H.Shepard. Spanning more than 90 years of history, the exhibition unearths extensive archives to showcase more than 200 works from 1920 to the present day. Each and every one of Milne’s characters feature in some way, shape or form, as well some super cute recreations of their magical homes.

If you’re visiting with very young children, don’t be put off by the initial appearance of a glass cabinet full of exciting relics that they can only dream of touching. Whether it provokes awe or intimidation, the entrance is a great scene-setter. As well as an entertaining opportunity to look at obscure films of Pooh incarnations from around the world, it’s also a chance to pick up the fantastic ‘bee trail’ – a series of thought-provoking panels, placed at child-height and designed to help young visitors make sense of the vast collection of letters, photographs and intricate sketches.

The low lighting can also be a distraction, but this is only in place to protect these very special drawings. So soak up the dreamy impact it has on the room, and head into the (slightly sparse) nursery, where the kids can snuggle down in a real bed and paw through books inspired by Milne’s own childhood and his son, Christopher Robin.

There’s no denying there is a lot of content on offer, but the reoccurring themes from the well-loved books sing through; friendship, community, teamwork, problem-solving. All of these ‘place-makers’ help orientate you into your surroundings, as you dash through after eager little ones, taking in bits and pieces. And it’s definitely not all artefacts, there’s plenty of tigger-style bouncy trouncy fun, fun, fun, fun, fun! There’s secret doors, hidey-holes, dressing up and loads character-based puzzles and games. There’s steps leading to a shhhhh…secret slide and the Pooh-sticks bridge would’ve been perfect if they’d have added sensory panels to detect little feet splashing in the river!

However weary you might feel by the end, try not to miss the large section at the back of the gallery, especially if visiting with primary-aged budding-illustrators. This area provides a fantastic chance to get close to the beautiful drawings of E.H.Shepard, and appreciate how this humble work brought so much warmth to Milne’s cheeky stories and prose. Particularly fascinating were the techniques employed to draw the weather, gracing stories with varying degrees of rain, simply through the score of a knife and the stroke of a brush.

Outside the story of an enduring partnership, this multi-sensory exhibition provides the perfect retrospective. The juxtaposition of intense information with space to think and play, is a fitting tribute to a charismatic bear, and a talented playwright-turned-author, who took his young audience as seriously as his old, and never dumbed things down. The exhibition serves as a reminder to those in galleries and museums, that it is possible to create an exhibition for all. When a character, writer or artist spans so many generations, why not find a way to allow their adoring public explore and celebrate them together.

Winnie-The-Pooh: Exploring a Classic 
9 December 2017 to 8 April 2018
Gallery 38, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd entrance, London SW7 2RL

Admission Adults £8, children under 12 free, concessions and family tickets available. Advance booking recommended.

The V&A is hosting a series of free talks, family and schools workshops around the exhibition. See website for full listings.