A GIANT storybook, huge onions and a nine-foot cutout of a long-eared icon: You've entered "Peter Rabbit's Garden," a traveling multimedia exhibition on view through May 26 at the National Museum of Natural History. It marks the 100th anniversary of "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" and pays tribute to its creator, Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), showing how her 23 children's books emerged from her love of the natural world.
Neither sanctimonious nor sentimental, Potter's stories brim with mischief, often subverting the Victorian tenet that children should be seen and not heard. Through a video, mounted photos, captions and carefully arranged artifacts (a desk full of watercolors, brushes, bits of fossils and stones), visitors can glimpse Potter's own Victorian childhood. As was the custom for upper-middle-class English girls, Potter saw her parents rarely and was educated at home by governesses. Unlike her peers, though, she tucked a bevy of little buddies -- kittens, bats, mice, lizards -- into the nursery she shared with a younger brother. Potter drew and painted from an early age, keenly observing her pets and capturing their natural behavior, color and form. The exhibition includes studies of her pet rabbit, Peter, snoozing by the fire and her hedgehog, the prototype for busy Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.
Potter's "tender and joyous presentation of animals" is an important reason for her books' longevity and cross-cultural appeal (they've been translated into more than 35 languages), according to Robert Sullivan, the museum's associate director of public programs. "Her rabbits and squirrels look and move like real rabbits and squirrels at the same time her stories reach into the kinds of tensions and feelings kids have." What child can't empathize with the angry mice whose dollhouse ham and pudding are revealed as painted fakes ("The Tale of Two Bad Mice")? Or the squirrel who loves teasing an aloof authority figure ("The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin")? Or even Peter himself, who runs "straightaway" into territory forbidden by his mother?
The exhibit is designed to appeal to all ages and was organized by Potter's publisher, Frederick Warne & Co. and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, with partial funding from Voyager Expanded Learning and Bank of America. On the Sunday I visited, young kids galore were experiencing the fun fruits of Peter's garden. My 3-year-old daughter, Christy, popped into a huge, upturned flower pot to see how a scared rabbit might hide from Peter's nemesis, Mr. McGregor. Her friend, Simone Ameer, of Northwest Washington, gazed at butterflies and beetles under a magnifying glass and peeked inside a burrow decorated with Potter's paintings of ladybugs, bees and tidy Mrs. Tittlemouse.
While preschoolers peer and play pretend, accompanying adults and older kids can learn about Potter's scientific side, including groundbreaking work on spores, and view her original, delicate sketches and watercolor illustrations. Here, too, is the letter-story Potter sent in 1893 to cheer a sick child -- which she later expanded into "The Tale of Peter Rabbit."
Alas, the publishing world was slow to appreciate her genius. After six rejections, Potter brought out the book herself, with Frederick Warne publishing a color-illustrated version in 1902.
The exhibition sports a storytelling tree -- a leafy magnet for Christy, Simone and many others. Vegetable-shaped beanbag chairs invite youngsters to lounge and look at Potter titles. Under low-lit branches, 3-year-old Seth Cooper, of Potomac, read with his mother, while his father, Jason, mentions Seth's delight at the exhibition.
As well as showcasing artistic accomplishments, the exhibit celebrates Potter's role as an early and important conservationist. Most of her books are informed by a beloved landscape: England's Lake District. A wall-size, interactive computer screen shows the thatched cottages, bodies of water and foliage that inspired her settings. With money from her books, Potter bought a Sawrey sheep farm and ran it with the husband she married at age 47. Over the years she purchased more than 4,000 Lake District acres and willed them as protected land to Britain's National Trust upon her death. "Beatrix Potter was an outspoken activist [in conservation matters]," says Sullivan. "She earned her own money. In many ways she was a woman ahead of her time."
March is Women's History Month, so why not visit this talented artist and astute businesswoman, whose legacy of literature and land should delight generations to come? From selling for a shilling (about 7 cents) apiece, Potter's small books have blossomed into international bestsellers, with more than 100 million copies sold just since 1984. Clearly Peter and friends have hopped, waddled and scuttled into hearts around the world.
PETER RABBIT'S GARDEN -- Through May 26 at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Federal Triangle or Smithsonian). 202/357-2700 or 202/357-2020 (recording). Web site: www.nmnh.si.edu. Open daily from 10 to 5:30. Free. A shop at the end of the exhibition carries Potter titles and related items. A Peter Rabbit Web site (www.peterrabbit.com) includes information on the 100th anniversary.
Story times: Museum staffers read aloud to children on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30, 11, 11:30, 1, 1:30 and 2 at the exhibition's storytelling tree.
Films: Free 30-minute animated films inspired by the tales are shown in the museum's Baird Auditorium at 11 and 11:30 on March 9, 23, 30; April 13; and May 11 and 18.
SUGGESTED READING After reading the actual Peter Rabbit books, try these titles:
"Beatrix Potter" by Alexandra Wallner (ages 6 to 9, Holiday House, $16.95). A picture-book biography for youngsters curious about the woman behind the popular tales.
"The Ultimate Peter Rabbit" by Camilla Hallinan (ages 11 and up, DK, $19.95). Explores the life and art of Beatrix Potter and includes many photos and illustrations.