Museum

Eleanor went to Te Papa yesterday.  For Eleanor, Te Papa was a series of enormous, empty rooms and long flights of stairs.  She flung herself  across the acres of grey tiles and carpet squares in great bursts of energy until she collided with a stranger or tripped herself up.  Te Papa didn’t make much sense to her.  For Daddy, Te Papa was calling “Eleanor” across large rooms, smiling apologetically at strangers, and kissing imaginary scraped knees.

I remember when Te Papa opened.  A foreign museum critic dared to say that Te Papa was a bit silly, architecturally, and a bit too much like a theme park.  Apparently this is a debate that musuem people have.  Should museums be silent rooms for the passive admiring public, or should they be interactive places?  I bet a lot of bitter ink has been spilt in the letters to the editor section of Museum Quarterly (or whatever it is museum staff read) about this.  Te Papa is both things really, but you have to pay to get into most of the bits where you silently admire things; the exhibition spaces.  It is a bit of a mixed success architecturally, but I like enough of it not to care too much.

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Eleanor found two things to do in Te Papa.  In the first of the rooms designed for kids she spent quite a lot of time wrestling a large soft toy penguin to the ground.  The penguin put up quite a lot of resistance but Eleanor was tenacious.  Final score: Eleanor 4, Penguin 2.  In the second room for kids (what are they called? Adventure Zones?), Eleanor spent time sorting plastic food into baskets, buckets and a set of scales.  Eleanor loves plastic food.  A room with plastic food in it was always going to be a surefire winner.

The museum critic would not have been amused.  Stuffed penguin toys and plastic food!  Mind you, he probably doesn’t have kids.

Sendak

Maurice Sendak is best known as the guy who wrote and illustrated Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen.  These two books are part of a trilogy.  The last one is called Outside Over There.  The last one is a lot less compelling than the first two.  Those first two books are like songs by The Beatles or a line from Casablanca; everyone knows them, even if they’ve never read them.  I think that The Mighty Boosh is like a Sendak story because you start and finish in the same place, and in the middle is an amazing journey filled with crazy things that still obey a kind of dream logic.

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Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1963.  Here’s what Sendak said about the book:

Through fantasy, Max, the hero of my book, discharges his anger against his mother, and returns to the real world sleepy, hungry and at peace with himself….  From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustration as best they can.  And it is through fantasy that children achieve cartharsis.  It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.  It is mu involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood – the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of all the Wild Things – that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have.

Partly Sendak was talking about fear and anxiety in this quote because quite a few people criticised the book when it came out for being too scary for children, and Sendak was saying: “As if children don’t know what fear is!” 

The magical combination of words in a book can run fear through our veins.  When Eleanor is at her grandmother’s house there is a book about the troll under the bridge called The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  Eleanor has had the story read to her many times and she sits silently on her grandmother’s knee as it is read to her, with wide eyes.  When she is alone Eleanor approaches the book with trepidation, as if there is something powerful locked inside, something powerful and frightening that she is also attracted to.

Sendak says there were two major influences on his Wild Things: King Kong and his Jewish relatives who would visit when he was a kid:

There you’d be, sitting on a kitchen chair, totally helpless, while they cooed over you and pinched your cheeks.  Or they’d lean way over and with their bad teeth and hairy noses, and say something threatening like ‘You’re so cute I could eat you up.’

So, the dream is based on a reality from the writer’s life, just like the dream for Max is based on the reality of his world established in the first few frames.  Max starts the book in a blanket tent with a picture on the wall of a monster.  He winds up in  a tent for a king and lord of the Wild Things.  There’s no better illustration of this fantasy based on a reality than the way the elements of Max’s room transform from the mundane into trees and vines.