Portsmouth NH Historical Society to host family exhibit

J. Dennis Robinson

Today, the Discover Portsmouth Visitor Center is filled with the sweet holiday scent of a gingerbread factory. The historic Academy Gallery was transformed, once again, into a sparkling city of edible artwork in the 31st Annual Gingerbread House Competition. But behind the scenes, after three years of preparation, an even more magical event is brewing for young visitors.

“It’s a radical idea for a historical society, that we should meet people where they first encounter art – in the pages of children’s books,” says Nina Maurer, guest curator of “Imagine That! – The Power of Picture Books “. This is a game-changing exhibit for children and families coming to the Portsmouth Historical Society in 2022. “We want to get the word out early to families, educators, locals and vacationers,” said declared the curator.

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Opening in April, “Imagine That!” will explore the power of picture books to connect and inspire us. The six-month exhibition will feature original artwork spanning over a century created by more than 30 New England illustrators.

NC Wyeth, "It was with difficulty that he found the way to his own home ..." by Rip Van Winkle of Washington Irving, 1921.

Historically, Portsmouth sits at the heart of an area rich in illustrations and children’s book publishing, which flourished in Boston as early as the 1830s and now extends to Portland and beyond. “This will be the first exhibition to focus on the extraordinary heritage of book illustration in northern New England,” said Maurer.

By the turn of the 20th century, aided by modern printing methods, popular children’s books featured the bold compositions and vivid colors of artists like Maxfield Parrish and NC Wyeth. Their work has animated the pages of stories meant to capture a child’s imagination. Books were no longer just moralizing, but really entertaining.

“These children’s classics evolved into picture books in which the illustration brought the story to par with the text,” says Maurer. “The books by HA Rey and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) have actively encouraged imaginative thinking in children.”

Ashley Bryan, "Blackbird tilted his feather brush in the pot and patted the dots," from Beautiful Blackbird, 2003.

A historic next step

Founded in 1917 and opened in 1920, the Portsmouth Historical Society, like similar organizations of its day, was largely a museum for adults. Although elementary school children traditionally visit the John Paul Jones House Museum, its collection of furniture, ceramics, paintings, fabrics, and knickknacks are largely non-contact objects.

Since 2012, PHS has expanded its operations into the former school and library building, now the Discover Portsmouth Welcome Center on Middle Street in the city center. While a series of successful art exhibitions in the Academy’s gallery were largely geared towards adults, family-oriented programs were added.

Beyond the popular Gingerbread House contest, PHS staff and volunteers organized drawing, writing and storytelling events for children. Since 2016, Education Coordinator Claire Spollen, formerly of the Boston Children’s Museum, has been leading outreach programs with third graders at schools in Portsmouth. As part of the upcoming Imagine That !, Spollen worked with two interns from the University of New Hampshire this summer to significantly expand the reach of PHS.

Beth Krommes, "In this book flies a bird," from Home at Night by Susan Marie Swanson, 2008.

“We’ve created programs related to the upcoming exhibition for teachers and librarians,” says Spollen. “Thanks to COVID, we have done our job through Zoom. One of the interns even worked from South Africa.

Another component is the creation of “Journey Boxes”, currently designed in collaboration with students from the Institute of Art and Design at New England College in Manchester. These lesson-in-a-box projects will include everything students need to learn about children’s authors and illustrators and create their own books. These sturdy, colorful, portable and deliverable travel boxes will allow PHS to reach children statewide.

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A survey conducted last year among members of the historical society, patrons of G. Willikers! Books & Toys on Market Street and Seacoast Moms have shown considerable interest in more children’s programming. More than 500 people responded to the survey project. Maurer says this enthusiasm is an indication of changing times in the field of local museums.

“PHS recognizes that the future of our historical society will be to expand our audience beyond traditional history buffs and art lovers,” she says.

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“To reach families and children, we have to give meaning to people’s lives,” Maurer continues. “With this exhibition we are opening up a world of beloved stories. But we also promote the sharing of experience between generations and the pride of a regional heritage. This advocacy is definitely a new direction.

Beyond the pictures

The exhibit will feature works by artists such as Tomie dePaola and Trina Schart Hyman from New Hampshire, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Suess) and Chris Van Allsburg from Massachusetts, as well as Robert McCloskey, Barbara Cooney and Ashley Bryan from Maine – and many others. Their illustrations add life to folk tales, legends, coming-of-age stories, travels, quests, adventures and other children’s stories – from factual to fantasy.

But the gallery is only the starting point for Imagine That! The family exhibit will include a book creation station, theater, play area, and quiet reading nook. Storytelling hours, weekend workshops, tours by New England illustrators, and pop-up reading events galore are planned. All of this, plus school and camp tours, a guide for teachers, and these new travel boxes to take to museums.

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“It’s convenient this time,” says Spollen. “We are looking after the interests of families and children directly, and we are very excited about it.”

“Beyond the genius of the hardcover book,” adds Maurer, “we will explore how digital publishing has also taken the picture book in new directions.” The 21st century has opened up a world of widely downloadable on-screen children’s books that include animation, sound and interactivity for an ever-expanding online audience.

An 80-page color exhibition catalog will explore the evolution of illustration and the importance of shared reading. The ultimate goal, says Maurer, is to allow visitors to experience picture books with fresh eyes and appreciate their lasting impact.

Maxfield Parrish, It's Walls Were from Jasper, from Dream Days by Kenneth Grahame, 1902.

Maurer points out that Imagine That! has been a collaborative effort since its inception with G. Willikers !, Portsmouth Public Library, UNH and the Institute of Art and Design. Other PHS partners include the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire, the Seacoast African American Cultural Center, Cross Roads House, and countless educators, librarians, artists, business owners and volunteers.

“We are a century-old start-up whose business is to connect people to their past and to each other,” Maurer says of the Portsmouth Historical Society today.

For more information on membership, use and support of Imagine That! contact the Portsmouth Historical Society at 603-436-8433 or email Maurer at [email protected] The Discover Portsmouth Visitor Center, its free exhibition galleries and Holiday Museum Shop are open daily at 10 Middle Street from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. until December 23. For events, member information and updates, visit PortsmouthHistory.org online.

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