The National Building Museum often celebrates the literal construction of architects, but now it is celebrating the imaginative world building done by children’s book authors.
The brand new exhibit “Building Stories” opens this Sunday, Jan. 21 with a free kickoff event, and will remain open for 10 years as part of the museum’s daily ticketed admission.
“We have a huge community blowout on Sunday all day, so we hope everyone will come in out of the cold and see us,” Cathy Frankel, deputy director for interpretive content for the National Building Museum, told WTOP.
“We’re about building and how the built environment impacts us and how we impact it. What better way than through children’s books?” Frankel said. “The buildings and the cities in these books aren’t just the backdrop, they’re another character moving the stories forward.”
The exhibit is curated by the nation’s leading expert on children’s literature, scholar Leonard Marcus.
“I had curated a show at the New York Public Library [and] we thought the Building Museum would be the best place in the world to do a show that reflects on the idea of home and what it means to find your place in the world through children’s books,” Marcus told WTOP. “Human beings are storytelling animals and children are drawn to stories from the beginning of life. Stories are one of the ways that we put a frame around the chaos of experience.”
The exhibit features a showcase of pop-up books with intricate, three-dimensional designs.
“This one is a version of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ in which you see the tornado that transports Dorothy way far from the place she calls home to the Emerald City,” Marcus said. “It’s a twister!”
Another showcase features the elaborate map drawings inside classic fantasy books.
“One of my favorite things about fantasy books are the maps that are often included at the beginning and end,” Marcus said. “Here’s the map for ‘The Hobbit’ and here’s the Hundred Acre Wood of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and here’s Hogwarts [from ‘Harry Potter’]. These maps help you transport yourself into an imaginary world.”
Often, these fantasy lands are accessed by portals to new dimensions.
“We have a section about what we call magic portals,” Marcus said. “It’s a kind of story where you’re living in your mundane world, but you have this fantasy that if you could just go through a door or fall through a rabbit hole or pass through a toll booth, you’ll end up in this magical world, which is the world of your dreams.”
It’s not all magic. Other storybooks tackle the pros and cons of everyday life in the city.
“Here are a couple of books from the middle of the last century from the 1940s: ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ where the city is a very hospitable place to live if you’re small like a child or a duckling, then contrasting that to a book from just a year later ‘The Little House’ where you can see the house being overwhelmed by the city,” Marcus said.
You’ll also find a miniature model of the White House next to a series of related picture books.
“This is a section about monumental structures,” Marcus said. “We wanted to include the White House, one of the most famous houses in the world. Here are a couple of books for children, first about how the White House was built in part by enslaved workers, and here is a book about the victory gardens from World War II.”
Overall, the exhibit is meant for all ages to enjoy.
“We are so excited about this show,” Frankel said. “This is for kids and adults alike. There are lots of fun interactives in there that will be fun for everybody. … I would be hard pressed to find somebody who didn’t love children’s books, so this is for everybody and we are so excited for people to start coming to see it this weekend.”