BOSTON — A clever bear could tell the story of “Winnie-the-Pooh” in strictly commercial terms and end up with a compelling tale, albeit without the yawning charm of A.A. Milne’s storytelling and E.H. Shepard’s illustrations. Since the publication of Milne’s first book in 1926, the popularity of Winnie the Pooh has been unwavering. The books have been mined to promote team-building in business settings and combed through for motivational quotes to arm customer service representatives. But mostly, the books’ customers have been generations of children and their parents.
In 1930, Stephen Slesinger purchased the rights to “Winnie-the-Pooh” from Milne and created a multimillion-dollar business merchandising the Pooh brand. These ventures included the first Pooh doll, a board game, cartoons, and a film based on the character. The agreement between Milne and Slesinger was the first of its kind and brokered into existence the modern licensing industry. The hurly-burly commercialization of Pooh and his friends stands in stark contrast to the pastoral quietude of Hundred Acre Wood — and this was before Disney became involved.
In 1961, Slesinger’s widow licensed the Pooh rights to Disney. Not to be outdone, Milne’s widow also sold what rights she held to Disney. Now under one corporate umbrella, the marketing of Winnie-the-Pooh began in earnest. Disney seized upon the popularity of Pooh and over time pushed out numerous products associated with the gentle if dim-witted bear. These included a stuffed toy that was a stylized Disney version of Pooh and a classical version that hewed more towards E.H. Shepard’s original illustrations.
Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is a rather large and esoteric collection of Pooh-related works and memorabilia. There are some of Shepard’s original illustrations, which have captivated children for generations with their smudgy simplicity, Winnie-the-Pooh sake cups (2014) designed by Hasami for Disney, and a whole array of objects directly or indirectly related to Milne or Pooh. In all, the exhibition has over 200 works in a setting scaled-down and dolled-up for young children, with milk and cookies provided for all visitors by a corporate sponsor. Some of the pieces even have “family questions” attached which posit queries around the ideas of thoughtfulness, logical thinking, and community for children and their parents to mull over and discuss.
The original exhibition was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and that iteration was conceived by an architectural firm and a theater designer. So why does the Boston version feel so drab and uninspired? Certainly Pooh’s world and his orbit of friends, as well as Milne — an interesting character himself — should generate something with a little more verve. Even exploring the life of Christopher Robin Milne, who had a love-hate relationship with the fame associated with his father’s work and claimed to loathe the commercialization of Pooh, might offer some deeper insight into the complicated juggernaut that his father created. Maybe the total velocity of ambition supporting the exhibition was tempered because of the subject matter? Still, presenting what amounts to a replica of a Winnie-the-Pooh themed nursery school adorned with actual artifacts related to the character falls far short of any serious attempt to explore how a fictional world intersects with the one just outside the museum’s doors.
Of course, any criticism raised here misses the point. This is an exhibition whose primary aim is for adults to bring their children for a day in the museum, following the exhibition by eating in the café or restaurant and, finally, visiting the gift shop, where a wide array of Winnie-the-Pooh merchandise awaits them. There are posted instructions about where strollers should be parked, along with the warm institutional gesture of hanging some illustrations at lower heights so that children can view the work. Mind you, anything that makes it easier to take children to a museum is a good thing and should be applauded.
The larger issue, perhaps, is whether a museum is the correct setting for an exhibition of this kind? This isn’t a new question in the age of the corporate museum experience but it becomes harder to ignore in the face of projects like this, where the distinction between art, commerce, and entertainment is so obviously blurred. Needless to say, the popularity of shows like this, even with the gloss of scholarship that’s attached, is a slippery slope where ultimately the bottom line becomes the final arbiter of cultural programming. The exhibition flounders in part simply because of the blatant application of its own commercial terms on the viewer, most especially, on children and their parents. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time that Winnie-the-Pooh has lined someone’s pockets.
Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic continues a the Museum of Fine Arts. (465 Huntington Ave. Boston, Massachusetts) through January 6, 2019.