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Inside the National Building Museum’s New Exhibit on Children’s Books

"Building Stories" opens on Sunday, January 21.

Inside the National Building Museum’s New Exhibit on Children’s Books
"Building Stories" is located on the ground floor of the National Building Museum. Photograph by Elman Studio/NBM.

The National Building Museum typically focuses on real-life structures, but a new exhibit is highlighting the imaginary worlds depicted in children’s books. “Building Stories” opens on Sunday, January 21, and the exhibition will be on display for the next 10 years. 

Photo by Elman Studio/NBM.
The exhibition entrance. Photograph by Elman Studio/NBM.

Four galleries explore how popular storybooks impact our understanding of the physical world. The different literary universes are brought to life through interactive displays and multimedia recreations of picture book illustrations. Source material includes classics and modern favorites: There’s a passageway that looks like a portal into the whimsical world of Alice in Wonderland, as well as a landscape mural inspired by Oliver Jeffers’s book Here We Are, a tale about Planet Earth. 

A mural inspired by Here We Are. Photograph by Elman Studio/NBM.

Each space explores a different theme. One of the ideas that inspired the exhibit is the concept of “home” in children’s books, says guest curator and children’s literature critic Leonard Marcus. A gallery is dedicated to this theme, unpacking how homes are represented in picture books and questioning the idea of what it means to leave one’s home.

A multimedia presentation in the “Your Home, My Home” gallery. Photograph by Elman Studio/NBM.

Another room is focused on the building blocks of language, with a wall of alphabet books from around the world. Step into the third room to learn about changes in physical scale; interactive features allow visitors to play with size and perspective.

This is in the "Scale Play" gallery. Photo by Elman Studio/NBM.
The “Scale Play” gallery. Photograph by Elman Studio/NBM.

The final room considers how themes from storybooks can be applied to the outside world. A nook stocked with books from the exhibit invites readers to dig deeper into the featured works. “Building Stories” will operate in tandem with the museum’s other educational programming, including a new collaboration with the DC Public Library Foundation called the Building Readers Book Club.

“I want children to leave this museum with the knowledge that the world is created by people because that tells them they have the agency to make it better,” says Aileen Fuchs, the museum’s executive director. 

A wall of alphabet books in the “Building Readers” gallery. Photograph by Elman Studio/NBM.

However, “Building Stories” isn’t just for young readers. Analytical texts and rare archival pieces, including some early mockups of nostalgic reads such as Goodnight Moon, allow visitors of all ages to appreciate the history and artistry behind children’s literature.

For example, one area in the exhibit, curated by author/illustrator David Macaulay features unused drawings from his 1997 book Rome Antics. The display not only chronicles Macaulay’s creative process but also shines a light on the extensive work that goes into the short books. 

Illustration from "Rome Antics" by David Macaulay.
Illustration from “Rome Antics” by David Macaulay (HMH Books for Young Readers, 1997).

“Picture books have a powerful ability to bring together people of different ages,” says Macaulay. “The same book can touch different people on different levels, depending on what stage of life they’re in.”

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Omega Ilijevich
Editorial Fellow