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“It was interesting seeing how the manuscript was acquired, and I just like seeing older pictures and the historical references.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. 



A Republican Woman in a Race of Democratic Men

Image taken from R'lyeh Imaging on Flickr
Image taken from R’lyeh Imaging on Flickr

A non-native Philadelphian, a Republican, and a woman, Melissa Murray Bailey is an outsider in many ways in the 2015 Philadelphia mayoral election, with every one of her unique characteristics making her less and less likely to potentially hold the office.

The last time Philadelphia gave the office to a Republican was in 1948, according to the city’s Department of Records. The last time it elected a woman– was never. Bailey also faces candidates, like Democrat James Kenney, who have lived in Philadelphia their whole lives, who have an intrinsic understanding of the city’s history, culture, and values.

Kenney’s primary talking point, making sure that zip-codes no longer define the financial and educational opportunities available for Philadelphians, no doubt appeals to the people of one of the poorest cities in the country. He plays his “born and raised in Philly” card well to his advantage, and his Twitter bio reads, “Born & raised in South Philly, proud son of a firefighter.”

Davis Thal, a senior a Film and Media Arts student at Temple University, believes not being from Philadelphia could be problematic for Bailey’s campaign and for how effectively she would be able to govern the city.

“She didn’t grow up knowing about Philadelphia,” he says.

Kenney has also proudly announced his plans to repair the disparity between police officers and the communities they are meant to protect, portraying himself as a vigilante of social justice.

Yet Bailey told that to her, being a Republican in Philadelphia does indeed mean being “open to every type of Philadelphian,” which, she admits, people often don’t associate with the Republican party. She emphasizes that her brand of Republicanism mainly focuses on fiscal conservatism. 

At Philadelphia’s Temple University, which mostly composes of either students from Philadelphia who chose to remain in the city for college outsiders drawn to what Philadelphia has to offer for millennials, there is a largely democratic community. Nonetheless, some students remain somewhat open minded in regards to a candidate’s political affiliation.

Charlie Ries, a graduate student at Temple, admits that he’s glad to see some competition in local politics stemming from the party divide.

“Politically, it might matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican. People have that root-for-the-home-team mentality. But I don’t think it makes you more or less capable to hold office.”

He says he thinks Philadelphia is unlikely to vote a Republican into office, “given the demographics like income level and racial demographics.”

“People’s perception of a candidate is based on national figures. When people see Republicans, they see Donald Trump.”

Both Thal and Ries admit they haven’t been as up to date on the mayoral race as they would like to be. They claim to be unaware of Bailey’s particular views on the issues at large in the race. But, they each get the sense that Republican ideals, regardless of the candidate who represents them, are still unwelcome to the majority of Philadelphians.

25 Years of Terror: Eastern State Penitentiary Thriving off Halloween Industry

National historic landmark by day, nationally ranked haunted attraction by night, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary still makes use of its medieval style façade and arrow-slit windows to terrify visitors.

The penitentiary closed in 1970, but today it runs historical tours and is in its 25th year of running Terror Behind the Walls, a Halloween attraction giving horror-lovers the chance to be spooked in one of America’s most famous prisons.

On an event night at the penitentiary, actors in full costume and makeup, dressed as grotesque, zombie-like guards and inmates, prowl up and down the street in front of the building, bringing the show to the streets. Some meander around, frantically mumbling, in tattered prison clothes. Some creep up behind visitors and passers by to spook them. An actor in stilts bends down to eavesdrop on conversations. Visitors are totally immersed in the experience.

Publications like Forbes and Travel Channel have ranked Terror Behind the Walls one of America’s top haunted attractions. Hauntworld, a website and magazine dedicated solely to covering America’s growing horror industry, claims the penitentiary “may be the best location in the United States for a haunted house.”

It very well may be. The building’s design was intended to frighten onlookers even before it became a haunted attraction. In the night of Autumn, it looks like a medieval Transylvanian castle. Spotlights create drastic shadows on the ivy covered stones, and perching gargoyles appear to observe visitors approaching the gate.

The penitentiary opened in 1829 and became famous worldwide for its revolutionary design and the philosophy behind it. The Quaker model pioneered keeping prisoners in separate cells to encourage reflection and reform. Before it closed and became abandoned in 1970, it had housed a number of notorious criminals, like Chicago mobster Al Capone, whose cell was adorned with oriental rugs and a radio, according to Eastern State’s website.

Visitors to the historical site can see Capone’s cellblock, but once Terror Behind the Walls reopens in October, most visitors come for the scares.

Philadelphians, especially, flock to the penitentiary. Josh Woodson, who on Oct. 8 returned to the attraction for the second year in a row, explains, “Living in Philly, it’s something that’s just well known.”

He adds, “It was definitely scarier this year than it was last year.”

To celebrate its 25th year running, Terror Behind the Walls has added two new attractions to the interactive show: Quarantine and Break Out. They add on to lock down, infirmary, detritus, and machine shop to make a total of 6 attractions within the walls.

In Quarantine, visitors are immersed in an infectious outbreak of disease within the walls of the penitentiary. New effects give the feeling of hallucinatory symptoms, and illusions create the sense that walls are moving, the room is spinning, and strange creatures may or may not be present.

Tanner Nassau, who lives in Philadelphia and was attending Terror Behind the Walls for the first time, says Quarantine was the scariest attraction of the night.

“You have on 3D glasses, and you’re running through, and they’re coming out of the walls. You don’t know what’s real and what’s not real. It was pretty scary. I was impressed.”

Woodson also claims Quarantine is the scariest part of the show.

The new and final attraction, Break Out, is a sudden, mass escape attempt by the prisoners, surrounding the visitors in total chaos before they are able to escape the building.

Because of the show’s renown and popularity, tickets often sell out, so ESP’s website encourages visitors to buy them online in advance. Ticket prices range from $13 to $39, depending on the day of the week, and the show runs until Nov. 7.