Thursday, 27 October 2016




If you were the kind of kid that inspected the backs of wardrobes for Narnia, made treasure maps for fun, and anxiously awaited your Hogwarts letter on your eleventh birthday, then have I got an exhibition for you!

I was definitely that kind of kid. Image source.

Imaginary Places and Enchanted Realms is a current exhibition held at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books in Toronto’s Lillian H. Smith library, and it explores magical worlds from children's books through display of a wide array of objects. It is a charming exhibit, and the books it features are fascinating artifacts to engage with. Many of my favourite childhood books, and probably yours too, are presented here.

One thing to keep in mind is that this collection is housed in a working library space, not a museum, so as an exhibition it functions more as a display of objects rather than a visitor-aimed educational experience. However, if you are a book-lover, the high-quality objects on display more than speak for themselves.

The Chronicles of Narnia featured display in Case 16. Check out the pop-up book at the top! Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald.

The exhibition is organized into glass cases, each of which is devoted to a particular fictional universe. Three major cases feature J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, and L. Frank Baum’s Oz. Other worlds present include Camelot, Neverland, Hogwarts, and the Hundred Acre Wood, among many others. Care was taken to show some less obvious examples; I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple copies of The Phantom Tolbooth. There is a variety of featured universes, but their clear organization into designated cases makes it easy to peruse the objects (though I definitely started from the "wrong" end of the exhibition).

The Chronicles of Narnia series in Case 18. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald

Many of the cases feature early editions of the books as well as contemporary copies. I was excited to see an entire set of the original 1950s editions of The Chronicles of Narnia books! The oldest book on display is a 1721 atlas of classical geography in the Odyssey case. All the objects have been excellently preserved and are in great condition. I was impressed by both the quality and quantity of the books in the collection.

So pretty! Case 10, Moominvalley. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald

Some books are closed to show their distinctive cover art, while others are opened to display a certain illustration. The Moomin selections were particularly well-chosen in terms of their pleasing artwork. A common practice throughout the exhibit is the use of open pop-up books to illustrate the worlds in question. There are several beautiful and elaborate examples; I especially like the Narnia pop-up, which is shown in the first photograph above. As a display technique, it is effective to use the pre-existing features of the books themselves to physically recreate the imaginative narratives within their pages.

There are other objects besides books on display, such as posters, figurines, and even games. My favourite non-traditional object is an Alice in Wonderland board game from 1923. Players can land on spaces such as “Alice gets too little. Go back 1 space” and “The Mad Tea Party. Wait one turn and drink tea.”

I really want to play this game. "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", Noble & Noble, 1923. Case 5, Alice's Wonderland. Photo Credit: Sadie MacDonald

In addition to the universes from your childhood, you may find that the exhibit also includes some worlds from your undergraduate degree. The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey both have their own cases of pertinent books and objects. There’s a particularly exciting artifact for the former on display… or at least it will excite you if you like really old things. All in all, there should be objects of interest in this exhibit for everyone who has loved a fictional world.

Sadly, the real world is not as exciting as those we read about in childhood. There is no Hogwarts in Scotland (I checked) nor is there a Neverland past the second star to the right. We can only make mundane copies of lembas bread and butterbeer, and Turkish Delight isn’t worth selling out your siblings for. However, standing next to the objects in this exhibition and reminiscing on the stories they contain lets you enjoy those worlds again, and brings you back to them for a short time.

Imaginary Places and Enchanted Realms runs at the Lillian H. Smith Library until December 3, 2016.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Sadie! I've seen the signs outside but did not realize how lovely an exhibition this was. I'll be making a point of checking it out.
    I was definitely that little girl on the big comfy chair, too!