The Rosenbach Celebrates 150 years of Alice in Wonderland

The Rosenbach museum rests at 2008 Delancey Place in Philadelphia, PA.
The Rosenbach museum rests at 2008 Delancey Place in Philadelphia, PA.

Settled at 2008 Delancey Place in Philadelphia, shaded by trees in autumn colors, the Rosenbach Museum’s simple 19th century brick façade hides some of Philadelphia’s most valuable literary treasures.

The museum is home to tens of thousands of rare books and documents, including the manuscript of Ulysses by James Joyce, the notes for Dracula by Bram Stoker, and the only remaining first copy of Poor Richard’s Almanac by Benjamin Franklin.

Besides housing a vast collection of literary history, the museum holds exhibitions for visitors to learn about and interact with the history behind famous works.

On Oct. 4, 2015, the museum, in conjunction with the Free Library of Philadelphia, unveiled an installation called Down the Rabbit Hole, celebrating 150 years of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Made up of a variety of displays analyzing the history and cultural significance of the novel, the exhibition draws a particular crowd.

Barbara Janofsky of Bethlehem, Pa. visited the Rosenbach on Nov. 18 to see the exhibit.

“I collect Alice books. She’s been a favorite of mine since a child. I own like three shelves of different Alice books illustrated by different artists, as well as by Tenniel.”

Being an Alice in Wonderland enthusiast, Janofsky found that not much of the information in the showcase was new to her. Instead of reading the informational placards on the walls that guide visitors through the book’s history, she spent her time looking at handwritten letters by Lewis Carroll, early sketches of the character Alice, and other historical remnants relating to the book.

“It was interesting seeing how the manuscript was acquired, and I just like seeing older pictures and the historical references. I enjoyed it. I was hoping it would be larger, but it was very nice.”

Janofsky had already visited a similar Alice exhibit in New York, but had never been to the Rosenbach before.

The exhibit, on the second floor of the museum, divides the experience into three sections, each in a room of its own. Visitors can walk freely through the quiet, dimly lit rooms.

Elizabeth Fuller, a librarian at the Rosenbach, explains that the sections are “separate but interconnected.”

Signs depicting primary characters in Alice and Wonderland point visitors towards the first part of the exhibit, Wonderland Rules.

Gaudy chandeliers light a room of glass display cases containing early notes and works of Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. Placards on the wall guide viewers through the showcase and explain the significance of each piece. The final case holds books, records, sheet music, all inspired by the original publication of Alice and Wonderland. It includes Alice books in different languages and adaptations ranging from the earliest versions to the latest Disney movie.

The next segment is Alice in Phillyland. The showcases hold letters, news clippings and photos documenting the book’s specific relationship with Philadelphia and how the Rosenbach came to acquire the original manuscript for a time.

The third room, filled with puzzles, riddles, and games, seems to separate from the other sections of the exhibit. It is brightly lit, colorful, and appears more like a playroom for children than an analysis of a renowned author.

However, Fuller explains, “Lewis loved puzzles.” Each display in the room is based on a game Carroll either invented or played. A circular billiards table fills the middle of the room, accompanied by a chess board, riddles written on a chalkboard, and a table with pencils and paper to practice mirror writing.

Games and riddles are such an important component to understanding Lewis Carroll that one of the public events for the Alice exhibit was called Chess Through the Looking Glass.

On Tuesday, Nov. 17, the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Branch hosted a series of human chess matches, inviting a younger crowd to celebrate Alice.

The event was open to chess players of all skill levels and ages. Players from local chess teams participated by helping novices at the game.

Coordinators from both the Free Library and the Rosenbach used foam mats to create a giant chessboard inside the main doors of the building. To play, children either moved about the board themselves or used oversized plastic pieces.

Adults dressed as Alice, the Mad Hatter, and other characters from the book circled the board and encouraged the players. Parents could watch, siblings could color at a craft table, and older chess players could play one another at tables equipped with standard sized boards.

The chess event was a success of bringing together Alice fans and chess enthusiasts of all ages. Other public events planned to coincide with the exhibition range from movie screenings to lectures to reading groups.

With both an exhibition lasting half a year and almost daily public events, the Rosenbach has given Alice in Wonderland a 150th anniversary worthy of a novel that, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum, “revolutionized children’s literature,” and that the British Library calls one of the “best loved children’s books of all time.”

The significance of this classic to modern American culture is huge. In a 2010 article for CNN, Ben Rooney reports how Disney’s most recent adaptation of Alice in Wonderland shattered box office records, grossing around $116.3 million in its opening weekend alone.

Its impact expands beyond borders and culture. The Victoria and Albert Museum cites that Alice has never been out of print and is translated into over 125 languages.

Because of the wide range of cultures, mediums, and generations Lewis Carroll has impacted, the Rosenbach’s celebration of Alice in Wonderland has had to appeal to a diverse audience. Its factual exhibition, offset by the public programs appealing to broader demographics, allows all of Philadelphia to learn about the life of Lewis Carroll and partake in Alice‘s celebration.