The “Bear Of Very Little Brain” Gets An Ontario Museum Exhibit This Spring

Oh Bother! This immersive Winnie-the-Pooh exhibit will only run at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum March through August 2020.


Let your inner child out to play while learning about everyone’s favourite pot-bellied, honey-loving fictional bear.

Starting March 7, the Royal Ontario Museum is hosting the only Canadian stop of an international touring exhibition focused on A.A. Milne’s and E.H. Shepard’s classic storybook characters.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic is a touring version of the original exhibit first shown at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. The Toronto exhibition will be on display for the public at ROM’s fourth level Beny Gallery from March 7 to August 3 .

As this Toronto exhibit will be the only stop in our country, it is expected to highlight the Canadian angle and origins of the beloved character.

It all started with one real-life, orphan black bear at an Ontario train station that warmed the hearts of many soldiers for a few months before shipping out to war.

Colbourn named the bear Winnipeg after his Canadian hometown and “Winnie” became her nickname.



On 24 August 1914, Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian in the Canadian Armed Forces bought an orphaned black bear cub from a trapper at a train station in White River, Ontario. He had been in the process of traveling to Valcartier, Quebec where first World War infantry brigades were being organized at the time. It cost him $20, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. That is around $450 today.

Colebourn named the bear Winnipeg after his Canadian hometown. While he had been born in Birmingham, England, Colbourn considered Winnipeg his home. Winnie, which was her nickname, soon became something of a mascot for his regiment, the Fort Garry Horse.

Within a few months, he had brought the bear to Salisbury Plain, England where soldiers were training for combat. But before shipping off for France that December, Colebourn left Winnie in the care of the London Zoo, where she became one of the most popular zoo attractions at the time.

In 1919, there was a ceremony where he made the donation of the bear official. However, Colbourn would visit Winnie when ever he was in London.

Winnie lived there from 1914 until she died in 1934. While Colbourn survived the war, he returned to Winnipeg and thought it best to keep the bear at the London Zoo. The bear was already adored by the London Zoo visitors.

In 1919, there was a ceremony where he made the donation of the bear official. However, Colbourn would visit Winnie when ever he was in London.

Photo cred: ‘Pooh and Piglet go hunting’, Winnie-the- Pooh chapter 3, pen and ink sketch by E. H. Shepard, 1926. From the collection of Clive and Alison Beecham © The Shepard Trust.

This was where Christopher Robin Milne, son of author A.A. Milne, first saw Winnie. About 10 years after Winnie was brought to the London Zoo, Milne was inspired to name his fictional bear after the Canadian black bear that had caught his son’s eye. He had almost named the storybook bear Edward.

The first Winnie-the-Pooh book was published in October 1926, followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. However, Milne also wrote poems about Winnie in some of his other books dating back to 1924 with When We Were Very Young.

Okay, so the “Winnie” part is clear – but what about the “Pooh?”

In Milne’s earlier collection of poems When We Were Very Young, there is one poem about Christopher Robin (a character representing his son) feeding a pet swan and the swan’s name is Pooh. He explains that it is a “very fine name for a swan,” because if you call him and he doesn’t come, “then you can pretend that you were just saying ‘Pooh!’ to show him how little you wanted him.”

The final name for the fictional bear seems to be a combination of Winnie the bear and Pooh the swan.

As well, the author has given another explanation within his Pooh Bear stories:

“But his arms were so stiff… they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think —but I am not sure —that that is why he is always called Pooh.”

It is the sound one might make blowing a fly off their nose.

He chose the name precisely because it is silly.

There will be rooms set up to seem like a life-size version of the fictional forest’s illustrations, with charming white and black trees and at least one little wooden bridge to walk across.

These Canadian roots of the fictional bear and his friends inhabiting the Hundred Acre Wood will be highlighted at the ROM showing.

Described as “immersive and playful,” the Winnie-the-Pooh exhibition will have an all-ages approach with historical readings, manuscripts and letters for former children in attendance, as well as retro, vintage and antique toys for the current children.

Photo cred: Victoria & Albert Museum.

If the Toronto exhibit is anything like the London version, there will be rooms set up to seem like a life-size version of the fictional forest’s illustrations, with charming white and black trees and at least one little wooden bridge to walk across.

Some other items in the exhibit include: Shepard’s original portraits of the characters and other drawings, replicas of Christopher Robin Milne’s actual stuffed animals, and a historical collection of memorabilia and Pooh-brand merchandise created over the last 90 years.

“Featuring interactive activities and larger-than-life environments, this exhibition will make you fall in love again with these thoughtful characters and delight in their resourcefulness while appreciating the universal themes of cooperation, friendship and tolerance that they embody,” says the ROM website.

The Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic exhibit runs from March 7 until August 3, and starts with an exclusive preview for ROM members on March 6. Members have free admission and can skip the lines. More information about tickets can be found on the ROM website.

Since the exhibit is billed as multi-sensory, immersive and interactive, let’s hope the exhibit includes roomfuls of honey pots to peer inside – and possibly get our heads stuck.