Alison Bailey, Lead Curator, Paddington: The Story of a Bear, British Library

Alison Bailey is lead curator for the upcoming exhibit, Paddington: The Story of a Bear at the British Library in London. In this edition of The Friday Five, Alison reflects on Paddington’s enduring appeal and describes what awaits visitors to the exhibit.

Tell us about the exhibit, Paddington: The Story of a Bear.

Paddington: The Story of a Bear (9 July – 31 October 2021) at the British Library celebrates one of the world’s most beloved fictional bears over 60 years after his first appearance in print in 1958. The exhibition will take visitors on a journey with Paddington, from Peru to his new home in London. They’ll meet his family and friends, such as Aunt Lucy, the Browns, and Mr. Gruber, before exploring the many mishaps Paddington gets into, whether helping in the kitchen or water-skiing.

Visitors will be immersed in Paddington’s world through illustrated books from the Library’s collections, original artwork, and memorabilia – including a wooden trunk made for the original bear’s clothes and author Michael Bond’s personal notebook, both on loan from Bond’s family. The exhibition has activities for visitors to practise their hard stares, take their own self ‘pawtrait’, watch clips from some of the film and animation adaptations, and hear a sound recording of Bond talking about the creation of Paddington.

There will also be a range of creative activities for young people to get involved in. These include free guided exhibition workshops for schools, exciting family events and projects, printed activity packs, as well as brand new Paddington resources on our Discovering Children’s Books web space.

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What gives Paddington his universal and lasting appeal?

Since his first appearance in 1958, Paddington has been loved by children and adults around the world. He is raised by his Aunt Lucy and taken in by the Browns and his world is one of kindness, love and acceptance. This exhibition reminds us why, over 60 years on from his creation, Paddington still resonates with people of all ages. Paddington has been an important and influential character for many generations and this exhibition brings his wonderful and cheering stories to life.

His adventures have been translated into over 40 languages and sold in more than 100 countries. Today, there are over 150 titles available in a range of formats. Paddington has been illustrated by many different artists and has featured in a number of films and animations over the years – we can even find him on stamps and coins. The Paddington stories are timeless and reflect that being kind often requires courage and strength in standing up for what we feel is right.

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The exhibit content was developed in cooperation with two local primary schools. Tell us about that partnership.

Response from Ria Bartlett, Lead Producer Onsite Learning Programme at the British Library: We have worked with two local Primary schools in Camden, London, to champion young voices and provide fresh perspectives to the exhibition. Pupils had the opportunity to engage creatively and imaginatively with the exhibition’s themes of home, acceptance, and belonging by designing new work to go on display as part of the show.

Year 4 children from Argyle Primary School designed “play prompts”, which take the form of a “marmalade splat” trail leading visitors through the exhibition and inviting them to pose, move, or act in response to an exhibit. For example, “Why is Mr. Curry so angry? Do the angriest face you can!” or, “Pretend marmalade has dripped inside your hat and it’s stuck on. Try pulling it off!” The trail also asks open questions in response to items on display, such as “Has anyone ever given you a helping hand?” or “Tell someone you’re with about something kind you’ve done.”

Year 3 students from Edith Neville Primary School explored themes of home and belonging. We asked them to draw one item they would pack in their suitcase to remind them of home if they were going on an adventure like Paddington, which will be displayed digitally. Their suggestions varied from digital technology, such as phones and tablets, through to their favourite toy, most loved food, and even a sibling!

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As lead curator of the exhibit, what’s your primary mandate when telling the story of an iconic and beloved character like Paddington?

This inspiring exhibition brings together the Library’s collections, original artwork, and Michael Bond’s family memorabilia for everyone to enjoy. Paddington is a very familiar figure to so many people – whether from the books, animations, or films. The main story we wanted to tell was about his creation, his character, his family and friends, and his many adventures.

We decided to split the exhibition into three sections: Beginnings, Home, and Adventures, to convey the themes of family and kindness. Through these, visitors can explore Michael Bond’s inspiration for the Paddington stories and also consider the sheer range of stories about Paddington and the many ways they have – and continue to be – presented. Visitors will see how Paddington has been depicted over the years through original artwork by Peggy Fortnum, David McKee, and R.W. Alley, together with books featuring illustrators such as John Lobban and Fred Banbery, as well as plush toys and clips from some of the film and animation adaptations.

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What do you hope visitors take away from their time at the exhibit?

The British Library wants to engage everyone with memorable cultural experiences and we hope visitors will enjoy delving into Paddington’s adventures. We think the themes of home and belonging will resonate with visitors of all ages in a range of ways. I hope that visitors will take away the sense that, despite all the different depictions of Paddington over the past 60 years, he is always the same bear – famous for his politeness and kindness – and that they will leave wanting to read more stories or re-read old favourites.

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Learn more about Paddington: The Story of a Bear and buy tickets to the exhibit.