In Exhibitions

In January 2024, the National Building Museum of Washington, D.C. launched its most ambitious exhibition ever, a long-term, 4000-square-foot immersive exploration of the idea of home in children’s literature. Curated by Leonard, Building Stories came together in an intensely rewarding, six-year collaboration between Leonard, the NBM staff, Portland (OR)-based design studio Plus & More Than, the DC Public Library, and an array of gifted artists, designers, and fabricators.

Building Stories occupies four contiguous galleries of the landmark building’s ground floor and is designed to engage a multigenerational audience of children, parents, grandparents, and caregivers as well as librarians, teachers, authors, artists, scholars, and others interested in the children’s literature as an artform and cultural expression. The show unfolds thematically as a sweeping survey of the illustrated literature for young people of the last 200 years across five continents. Well-loved classics like Goodnight Moon, Tar Beach, Pippi Longstocking, and The Hobbit share pride of place with dozens of other, lesser known but equally worthy books from around the world, which come into sharper focus for visitors when seen through the lens of the exhibition’s guiding themes. At the show’s core is the belief that all humans have a life-long need to feel at home in the world and that, because children’s books are the literature of our hopes and dreams, it is only natural that ideas about home lie at the heart of nearly all of the genre’s greatest stories.

Building Stories begins with a gallery devoted to alphabet books and building blocks – playful centuries-old teaching devices for introducing the young to the written word and the built environment in which they live. The exhibition then turns its focus to the variety and cultural significance of the wide array of places that people around the world call home; the dilemma of those people who have been left their homes as immigrants or refugees or who have no permanent address of their own; the impact of scale and other design considerations on where in the human-built world we feel at home and where we do not; the Earth as our home and the role we can all play in safeguarding it from childhood onward. Beautifully illustrated rare books, original illustration art, interactive activities, audio and video installations, and reading nooks for quiet the sharing of open-shelved books are some of the many kinds of experiences to be found inside the show. Celebrated artists David Macaulay and Oliver Jeffers have each designed a special area within the exhibition that allows visitors to experience the unique visual worlds they have created more intimately and at closer range than ever before.

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