The Art Museum as Refrigerator: The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

January 23, 2013 — So I was at a museum dedicated to children’s book illustrations when I heard a six-year-old boy say, “Are we done yet? Can we go?”

That’s fine. He wasn’t really the audience. I was.

The museum was the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. You might not know Carle by name, but you probably know his caterpillar. His very hungry caterpillar.

So far, Carle has written and illustrated some 70 children’s books in his career, which started after a childhood in war-time Germany and then the usual time served at New York newspapers and ad agencies.

At 38, he found his audience. And they were three years old.

For his illustrations, he paints, cuts, and fits tissue paper together into collages that form vivid, textured images that burn into your childhood retinas and stay there until adulthood. That’s why most of us can spot his art from three shelves away.

Personally, I have no real view of his work. I just know about it and dig book illustration in general, which was why I was there. This guy, on the other hand, hates it.

Anyway, Carle garnered more success for his picture books than all the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction combined, and in 2002, he opened his own museum dedicated to the often overlooked art of the picture book.

The 40,000-square-foot museum is in Amherst, Massachusetts, right on the Hampshire College campus. Carle’s own work is used in the branding of the place, and he has a permanent exhibition there, but the museum also showcases the work of other children's illustrators. He also has a series of massive watercolors in the main hallway that depict, uh, watercolor, I guess.

Judging by the fact that I have no pictures of the various illustrations that were on display, I’m pretty sure photography wasn’t allowed in the exhibit areas. Also, this was a couple years ago, and I don’t remember who besides Carle was hanging on the walls, so I probably shouldn’t be writing about this place unless I revisit it. I’m assuming a lot of anthropomorphized animals, though.

Still, the exhibits were set up just like an art museum, with the images framed without the context of the rest of the book and then hung on blank walls for the usual cold art gallery experience. There were no jungle murals or people in Very Busy Spider costumes or “please-touch” pieces. All very serious and adult, actually.

However, there are a couple of things for kids to do who like their illustration in books and not on walls. There’s a reading library, a gift shop, and a children’s activity room, where kids can make their own illustrations, including some Carlesque collages.

Apparently they allowed photography in the bathroom.

And that’s actually where the kid I wrote about earlier wanted to go. He didn’t want to look at pictures. He wanted to make them.

And he has a point. But he’ll mature past that eventually.

Anyway, the exhibit space isn’t too big, and didn’t have a ton of art on display, but that might change this year since it’s the 10th anniversary of the place. Regardless, the museum does fulfill a relatively unique niche in a world where most of that type of artwork gets ripped in half, gnawed by dogs, and has milk and tears spilled all over it.

Whether they love or hate a book, kids are harsh critics.