Growing Up with Books is an exhibition in Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, displaying a brief but beautiful history of children’s literature. The exhibition is situated in a small, dimly lit room at the back of the museum, setting up the aura of mysticism that is apparent immediately upon entering.
The exhibition is aesthetically stunning, centring on the book covers and their illustrations. Beginning with intricate Victorian novel cover art, the exhibition progresses through the bold, clear covers of religious texts, concluding with vibrant and elaborate fairy-tale covers. Deep blues and blacks act as the vacuous backgrounds for colourful mystical imagery in fantastical illustrations of classic children’s literature, such as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Alongside the cover art are inconspicuous illustrations taken from within children’s books, dotted around the cases. Included are ornate mythical maps, as well as some stunning diagrams of animals, insects, leaves, and flowers.
Some of the illustrations are created using thick watercolour, constructing a dainty and delicate aesthetic throughout the exhibition. This works well with the mild ageing that most of the books have been subject to, as the juxtaposition between the delicate illustrations and the wind-swept and slightly beaten books produces stunningly beautiful pieces.
The curation of the exhibition is mildly confusing, as there seems to be a lack of coherent structure to the presentation of the works. The room pivots on a columnar centrepiece, around which visitors orbit the room; although structurally important, this case contains few interesting pieces. The beauty of cover art is to be found in the peripheries of the room. The size of the room and its dusky lighting create a sense of intimacy not commonly found in art galleries, producing a feeling of warmth and homeliness in visitors, which works perfectly in tandem with the content of the exhibition.
One feels at home, perusing books from childhood.
On the wall by the exit are a few large posters containing information on imagination, fairy tales, and the history of children’s literature. The brief overviews provide an illuminating insight into the context of the exhibition: the relationship between childhood, imagination, and literature, the functioning of fairy tales and their place in our lives, as well as a concise summary of the important parts of the history of children’s stories. Although, perhaps these would be best situated at the entrance so that visitors can appreciate the context of the exhibition before viewing it.
Cosy, confusing, comforting – this exhibition is worth a quick visit.
Image: Rory Biggs O’May