On one level it is a journey through magical caves, beaches and forests inhabited by lovable, strange creatures that resemble tiny hippos. On another it is an existential journey touching on some of the biggest subjects including gender, sexuality, tolerance and freedom.
The first major UK exhibition dedicated to the Moomins and the life of their Finnish creator, Tove Jansson, will open to the public on Friday.
Staged in London’s Royal Festival Hall, Adventures in Moominland is an immersive and interactive exhibition that takes visitors on a journey through the stories, with recreated scenes from the books, and exhibits of more than 40 original drawings and other archive materials.
Curators say children will love it, but so will adults, as scenes often have more to them.
“She weaves real-life drama into her stories, you get things between the lines,” said Jansson’s niece Sophia Jansson. “The books are so rewarding because it is not just what you see, it is all that’s in between as well. She had a fantastic skill to express things that seem current and touching to everyone.”
A case in point are the inseparable characters Thingumy and Bob who speak in their own strange language and carry a secret suitcase which contains a shiny ruby. For Thingumy and Bob, read Jansson and Vivicka Bandler, with whom the author had a brief and passionate affair.
Homosexuality was illegal in Finland at the time, meaning their affair had to be conducted in secrecy, their love hidden like the ruby in the suitcase.
The Moomins were written in the aftermath of the second world war, offering a tolerant, happy world and a refuge from the harshness of reality.
It is a world that is still needed, said Sophia Jansson. “You look at what is happening and the polarisation of wealth and opinion … it is really important to have these books.
“You get solace from the fact she paints a world that is different and emphasises the values of treating everyone with respect, including nature. Tove is still so current which is the secret behind the Moomins being still so appealing.”
Visitors will be taken on one-hour guided tours through the world of the Moomins with an audio narrative written by the children’s author Laura Dockrill and voiced by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig.
The Moomins have many fans, including the actor Samuel West, who said he had felt at home in Jansson’s Moominvalley since he was seven.
“The sensuous melancholy, the odd cast and the wisdom of the worldview fascinates me,” he said. “This new exhibition captures both the textures and the emotions of Moominland, and the way ordinary things are transformed into magical strangeness by Jansson’s joyful sideways look.”
The exhibition is part of the Southbank Centre’s year-long exploration of Nordic arts and culture throughout 2017, which will feature everything from visual art to contemporary music to Lego.
• Adventures in Moominland, 16 December – 23 April at the Royal Festival Hall