Remembering the real Winnie

Before there was Christopher Robin, there was Harry and Winnie. The original tale of the classic children’s literature and its Canadian roots commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War in a new exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre.

Remembering The Real Winnie: The World’s Most Famous Bear Turns 100 focuses on Harry Colebourn, Canadian war solider and veterinarian, with his bear cub Winnie (named after his hometown Winnipeg) and the time they spent together during the war. The exhibition opened on Nov. 5, and features the Colebourn Family Archive, comprising of photographs, diaries, newspapers clippings, and a full veterinary kit from the period.

It tells the story of how Colebourn purchased the pet bear for $20 and bought her over to England when his regiment shipped out. Although he left her in the care of the London Zoo, he later donated Winnie, and that was where English author A.A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin, encountered the bear that inspired the world famous Winnie-the-Pooh books.

The exhibition was made possible by Colebourn’s great-granddaughter and Ryerson journalism alumna, Lindsay Mattick, who provided the family archive for Ryerson to research and showcase. “These items have been in our family for a long time and we know these stories have been loved around the world.”

With it being the 100th anniversary of the war, she felt that it was a suitable time to remember the war by sharing her family’s history with the famed bear.

“[Winnie-the-Pooh] is based on an equally inspiring and true story, that [it] seemed appropriate to have an exhibition to allow it free to be shared,” said Mattick.

The exhibit was led by Doina Popescu, founding director of the RIC, and guest curated by Kate Addleman-Frankel and Irene Gammel. The project sought to remember the history of Canada’s participation in the war and teach viewers the origins of this tale.

“We wanted to bring the idea of commemoration to a younger generation. We wanted to show what happened 100 years ago. It was an important time for Canada because Canada was involved in the war right from the start. And so in a way, the story of Harry is also the story of Canada at war,” Gammel said.

The group working on the project included faculty members from the English department and the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre, and involved many students, professors and Ryerson alumni. Shaun Ono and Ryan Bertman, graduates of the Radio and Television Arts program, created the interactive online portion of the exhibit.

“It was a big learning experience for us. I think we found over 12 different programs and organizations that were in the university, were taking part in the project,” Bertman said.

They were asked by their former professors to create a digital component in order to add a “multi-layered experience” for those attending the exhibit and to those who enjoy online viewing.

“To us, just being a part of the team was such a learning experience dealing with how you organize such a physical exhibit, but we were also working with the interactive and online components – I think that was the best part.”

Mixing technology and history together generated a new way for viewers to experience and explore Colebourn and Winnie’s story.

“It is all mediated through technology, but I think there is a gap between how history and how academic projects are being brought into the market place. So we’re trying to bridge that gap with these projects and take history and put a little new spin on it,” Ono said.

They involved a team of designers, Ryerson students and grads to help create the content and musical score to the online exhibit, putting “a real Ryerson touch” on it.

Others involved helped with the research component of Colebourn and the storytelling of Winnie-the-Pooh. Andrew O’Malley, associate professor in the English department and director of The Children’s Literature Archive, contributed by bringing in A.A. Milne’s books.

“This is an important story. It’s a centenary of the war. I thought that it was important to [tell] a war story that include the voices and interest of children, who as a general rule are not really part of the equation when we think of geopolitical conflict, when we think of war, the memorialization of it,” said O’Malley.

With a new generation understanding the true story of Winnie and its history to Canadians and the war, Mattick says this is what success looks like.

“It’s truly a dream come true to see such a well-done exhibition, so thoughtful, professional – it’s a great way to have our family history showcased.”

Remembering The Real Winnie: The World’s Most Famous Bear Turns 100 runs from Nov. 5 to Dec. 7 at the Ryerson Image Centre.

Photos by Pedro Hespanha