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photograph by
S
ABIN GRATZ

Good Night Room
Karen Petersen creates a window on children's classics
by
KEVIN FOLEY

It didn’t take long for Karen Petersen G’98, the curator of the Shelburne Museum’s surprise hit exhibit, “From Goodnight Moon to Art Dog,” to get confirmation that the museum’s tribute to the famous family of children’s book illustrators and authors was on the mark.

“It was the first day of the show and we weren’t even quite finished building yet, and this little 18-month-old shaver comes in and sees it and just stops dead,” she says. “Then he starts shouting: ‘It’s the room! It’s the room!’ And we all breathed and went, ‘We’re going to be OK.’”

The “it” in question was a lovingly detailed oversized diorama of Clement Hurd’s painting of the “great green room”— you know, the spot with the bunny in striped pajamas, painting of a cow flying over the moon and hovering red balloon — from Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 perennial best-seller Goodnight Moon. “We needed a hidden camera right there,” says Petersen. “The reactions were amazing, really deep emotions.” Children gaped; more than one adult visitor began to cry.

Petersen, a cheerful ex-teacher with a big smile and an even bigger voice, found the enthusiasm easy to come by. She needed it, given her challenge: translating the lives and work of illustrators and part-time Vermont residents Clement, Edith and Thacher Hurd into a fully contoured museum show that offered something to children and adults. Petersen and her curatorial colleagues had to balance the biographical stories about the husband-and-wife writing and illustrating team (and their son, Thacher, author of six books), with art and art commentary, and kid displays and games. The task was made simpler by the Hurds’ fine art influences, which ranged from Vermeer to Ferdinand Leger, and non-condescending approach to children’s art. “It was easy to have all these multiple layers simultaneously in the exhibit, Petersen says. “It just all fit.”

Delving into the art history was fun, but for Petersen the kid’s stuff offered the biggest pleasures — the carrot-baited fishing pole from Runaway Bunny, a giant paint-brush hot rod from Thacher Hurd’s Art Dog, and, especially, a recreation of a waterfront diner kitchen from his Mystery at the Docks. It’s this spot, tucked into a nook of the barn and stocked with toy cooking utensils, that represents Petersen’s favorite union of fun, literature, and the museum space.

“Kids would go in, shut the door for an hour, and I’d come by and knock to get something and they’d say, ‘Go away. We’re busy,’” she says.

With the show closed, Petersen is back planning education programs, but the museum is beginning planning for another children’s literature show, and Peterson plans to curate another place where kids can step into the pages of a book and lock themselves in.

From Goodnight Moon to Art Dog is traveling to other museums throughout 2004 and 2005. It will be at the Orlando Museum of Art from May to September and the Stamford Museum and Nature Center from October through December.