Adventures in Moominland


In the evening after I visited the V&A, I’d managed to bag the last ticket for the last entry slot that day of the exhibition at the South Bank Centre. I’m a Moomin fan, having read all the books when I was a child. I’d already seen much of what was on show at the public Library in Tampere, Finland, which is the guardian of most of the Tove (best pronounced something like “Toover”) Jansson archive. The South Bank exhibition, Adventures in Moominland, takes advantage of the Tampare collection moving to a new home there in May to borrow part of the collection for a similar presenation to last year’s very successful Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl. Just like that successful family exhibition, this one also uses the author’s work to explore the life of the author.

Tove Jansson’s life was not entirely happy, she grew up during civil war in Finland, with loving parents whom she loved and respected in return. But while she was a progressive left winger, her father sided with the Fascists. Not only that, she had a hard time coming to terms with her lesbian sexuality. These are some quite challenging concepts to share with an audience as young as might visit this show, but the curators and interpreters did a very good job of it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this exhibition sees less actual children than last year’s. While Dahl’s popularity has endured with every generation, in the UK Moomins grabbed the imagination of a good part of my generation in the seventies, and had brief surges of popularity with a couple of later children’s television series, but it seems to me that they are best known by people of my age, and not so quickly recognised by younger generations (except, I’m willing to bet, by the children of older fans – I know I read all the books to my own children).

The group assembled for my tour were, apart from one young fan, all adult. It’s harsh of me to say its what I expected – it was after all the last tour of a workday in term-time, so even the home-schoolers will have likely gone home. (And I bet, given the lack of school in the novels, that there is a correlation between homeschooling parents and Moomin fans, but I digress.) The format followed Wondercrump’s successful formula. An introductory talk from a host who warned of scary dark experiences ahead, but reassured us that though the Moomins often had scary adventures, they always ended happily. “Apart from Moominvalley in November” I said. Then she handed over to a guide, a young woman dressed in such a style as to resonate with Jansson’s illustrations of the Mymble, Fillyjonk and Toft, etc., without actually trying to be one.

The guide led us in and as with Wondercrump, we discovered she was playing a two-hander with a disembodied voice. This time, it was Sandi Toksvig – guess Danish is a bit like Finnish. So so we progressed with these two guides, recorded and live, through spaces that evoked Sniff’s cave, Snufkin‘s tent, the woods of Moominvalley, a raft like that in Comet in Moominland, Moominpapas lighthouse island, and the Moominhouse itself. In each space the guide and exhibits focussed (mostly) on one of the books, and explained what each book had to reveal about Tove’s life. Even the youngest reader will recognise (even if they might struggle to put it into words, as I did when I was seven or nine or whatever) that the novel series (there were a couple of picture books too, but I only found those as an adult) start out as outward facing proceedural adventures but become more inward looking, dramatic, and psychological with each publication. It can put some young readers off the later books, but those who persevere have their first introduction to existentialism.

The South Bank adventure doesn’t follow the books in order, but structures the story about Jansson coming to terms with her sexuality and acknowledging her love for her life-long partner Tuulikki. Moominland Midwinter thus becomes the climax of the exhibition’s story. In the novel young Moomintroll wakes up early from hibernation, in strange new snow-covered world, which he doesn’t like at all, until he meets Too-ticky, the girl who shows him its wonders. I admire the curators’ resistance to chronology in favour of a more satisfying emotional journey, preceding Midwinter with the loneliness of Moominpappa at Sea, which actually came eight years later.

Maybe wisely, they avoid the last novel Moominvalley in November, altogether. As a young reader, this was the most important work for me. Taking place after the Moomins have left for the lighthouse island in Moominpappa at Sea, the other inhabitants of the valley move into their house and try to recreate their life, waiting for them to return. But they never come back. Jansson’s mother had died while she was writing this final novel, and she is said to have said she “couldn’t go back and find that happy Moominvalley again.” I can’t quite explain the emptiness that fills my chest, even as as an adult, as I remember finishing the novel as a child. I am convinced it was a vital moment, maybe the very first step in my journey to being a grown-up.

So, I wrestle with some dissatisfaction that the experience didn’t feature my favourite work, while at the same time being impressed with the effectiveness of their story construction. I was also even more impressed with the “mixed media” approach of exhibit, lighting effects, audio commentary and sound and live guide. In a way its a more scripted version of what I’m trying (and currently failing, it feels) to do at Chawton.

I feel it might be a technique that other places (and yes I’m thinking of the National Trust places I work with) should experiment with.

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