By Patricia Lightfoot
As a small group of long-time fans of the Moomin books, we were inexorably drawn to “Adventures in Moominland,” which was advertised as an “immersive, interactive exhibition” hosted by the Southbank Centre as part of “Nordic Matters” – a year-long celebration of Nordic art and culture. After an agonizing last-minute search for the venue, having approached the Southbank Centre for our timed tour by the Millennium Bridge, that is, essentially from the wrong side, we positioned ourselves with only a few minutes to spare in front of the “book cover” that would be the entrance to the exhibition. At the appropriate moment, our guide opened the book, then turned a cloth “page” and led our group of about a dozen adults out of central London and into a darkened forest.
In addition to being led through various locations from the books, we visited the recreated studio of Tove Jansson, artist, author and creator of Moomin Valley. While examining some original sketches, we heard the recorded sound of bombs dropping, the context being that the beautiful, magical and often surreal world of the Moomins was invented as an escape from the horrors of the Second World War in Finland. For those unfamiliar with these children’s books, I would say that part of their charm lies in a perfect balance of domestic comfort and thrilling adventure, in which the small nuclear family of Moomintroll and his parents in their Moominhouse are wonderfully accommodating of their often-bizarre array of friends and acquaintances, and even mere passersby, “just adding another bed and putting another leaf in the dining-room table.” Once spring has come, and their period of hibernation is over, the Moomins and their friends are ready for some excitement, often involving sailing in the Gulf of Finland, which was a favourite pastime of Tove Jansson. One part of the exhibition features photographs of Jansson’s cabin on an island in the Finnish archipelago and a photo of her swimming there, while wearing a midsummer crown of (plastic) flowers on her head.
Each location in the exhibition featured two or three original drawings from the books, or a book cover, or small-scale models of the characters. The visual and tactile parts of the exhibition were complemented by short pieces of recorded narration; information from our guide; background sounds, such as the distant roar of the Groke in the snowy forest; “mist” in the tropical forest; and various props left lying around by the characters, including Snufkin’s hat and Thingummy and Bob’s suitcase, with its mysterious and beautiful “Contents.” One of our party found a “missing” key that allowed us to enter Moominmama’s kitchen in the lighthouse and peer through a bedroom door that could be opened only a couple of inches, yielding us a glimpse of a cosy Moomin bedroom. The exhibition was all beautifully constructed and curated. It would have been lovely to have had a little bit more time to linger and peruse the exhibits, but all too quickly we were expelled from Moominland.
One of our party felt that there could have been more content, though the exhibition was intended to be an experience rather than a conventional show of paintings and drawings. We learned about the earliest origins of Moomintroll as an scary troll, who was very different from the friendly and sensitive character who appeared in the books. We were also told about Tove Jansson’s forbidden love for another woman, which may have provided the background for her evocation of the pain caused by the absence of a beloved friend, especially one who seems to have less need of one’s company than one has of theirs. In Finn Family Moomintroll, it is the cool self-contained Snufkin whose departure from Moomin Valley causes Moomintroll’s sadness at the end of a glorious summer of adventures, featuring a Hobgoblin’s magical hat, the King’s Ruby, the theft of a venerated barometer and a lively encounter with a group of the electrically charged, endlessly drifting Hattifatteners.