I grew up reading Beatrix Potter stories. Well, first my mother read them to me and then after I learned to read I kept going back to them. Of course my introduction was Peter Rabbit but I liked her lesser-known stories better. The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse is so very polite and English, The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is weird and dark, and The Tale of Jeremy Fisher is just bonkers. So seeing an exhibit of original drawings and handwritten notes as well as personal items from throughout her life was…pretty disappointing. It’s a traveling exhibit that’s currently at the Frist Museum in Nashville and it looks like it’s going to the High Museum in Atlanta next.
What the exhibit had was interesting. There was a handwritten journal from when Potter was young that she wrote in a code she invented herself, and a painting of water lilies she did when she was a teenager. And while I wasn’t surprised to learn she and her brother kept lots of different animals as pets I was surprised that when most of their pets died they dissected and stuffed a lot of them. That’s one of those things that, when I thought about it, though, made sense. She anthropomorphized animals in her stories but she wasn’t sentimental. The Tale Of Ginger And Pickles ends with the title characters, a dog and a cat, quitting their jobs as shopkeepers to become a gamekeeper and a poacher, and while we never see it it’s implied that they go after the animals they used to work for. And in The Tale Of Two Bad Mice Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, named after two of Potter’s own pet mice, tear up a dollhouse—modeled on an actual dollhouse Potter herself had. They write an apology but, come on, they get away with it. Getting away with it is a common theme in her stories.
The problem with the exhibit is, at least at the Frist Museum, it’s just stretched too thin. It’s spread out over four rooms more or less representing four stages of her life: her childhood and adolescence, the publication of her first books, success as an author, and her later life as a farmer and conservationist, helping to preserve large sections of England’s Lake Country. I wish there’d been more about her brief but tragic engagement to her editor Norman Warne, which was the subject of the film Miss Potter, and which is pretty good. It’s a lot better than those recent Peter Rabbit movies.
There’s some fun stuff for kids, too, like giant flower pots, including one you can hide in, and copies of her books, and in another room giant spools of thread and more copies of her books, and a recording of different voice actors reading her books. This was on a constant loop, though, and random—why couldn’t they invest in something that would let us choose what we wanted to hear? And also most of the pictures were placed at adult heights which doesn’t seem right. I wouldn’t have minded bending down if it meant it would be easier for “little rabbits” to see her drawings.
The final room had some of the merchandise Potter herself licensed, like board games and stuffed animals, and a large screen with drone footage of the Lake Country. It’s wild to think she died in 1943, in the middle of World War II, when her stories seem so much older, but also timeless.
Potter would invite groups of Girl Guides—the British equivalent of the Girl Scouts—to her farm and sit with them and tell them she wished she’d had a group like them when she was young. Still she managed to be independent, to carve her own way. Maybe in other places the exhibit will be more compressed, maybe even more kid-friendly, but there was so much that was left out and I think that’s why I came out of the exhibit thinking she deserved something better.