Wandering in Wonderland

Get curiouser and curiouser with the Harry Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a new exhibition celebrating 150 years of Lewis Carroll’s literary classic.

Wandering in Wonderland

Making Art Family-Friendly: With the Alice exhibition came a unique challenge: making the content engaging for all fans, both young and young at heart. Lively ephemera pepper the galleries, including this eye-catching Robert Sabuda pop-up book. Visitors will get to chase the White Rabbit through the exhibition, collecting pawprint stamps along the way, and enjoy a cup of imaginary tea with the Mad Hatter.

“‘And what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’”


A Jack of All Trades: Novelist, mathematician, deacon, photographer—who knows where Charles Dodgson found the time to write an enduring literary classic (not to mention a sequel!). He even tried his hand at drawing from time to time, illustrating the original version of the story he gave to young Alice Liddell. Though that version of the manuscript has long since disappeared, many of Dodgson’s photographs remain, including this one of the Liddell sisters in 1858. Pictured from left: Edith, Lorina, and Alice Liddell.

A century and a half later, readers might still be asking that same question—if not for Lewis Carroll’s wonderfully wacky world of Wonderland. With one pinafore-clad adventurer and a supporting cast of peculiar creatures, Carroll popularized a new and nonsensical literary genre when Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865. But, perhaps most importantly, he simply made reading more fun.


Branding Hit: This movie-inspired crayon set from 1933 was one of many popular Wonderland-themed products.

Maybe that’s why Alice has been able to wriggle her way into every aspect of pop culture in the intervening years, during which the book has never gone out of print. Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole has been repurposed in movies, stage plays, comic books, and board games. She’s inspired the likes of Walt Disney, Salvador Dalí, and even Taylor Swift, who sings about finding Wonderland on her latest album. But when it came time for Harry Ransom Center associate director Danielle Sigler to begin curating an exhibition surrounding the book’s 150th anniversary, she discovered something unexpected.

“Relatively few people have read the original work,” says Sigler. “Everyone knows the story, but there’s a richness to the book that just doesn’t quite translate in other adaptations.”


More to the Mock Turtle: “You know there’s something to a story when contemporary readers miss a lot of the references, yet continue to engage with it,” Sigler says. One such lost reference: the Mock Turtle, who got his name from a cheap imitation of a popular Victorian delicacy, green turtle soup. Instead of turtle meat, mock turtle soup was made using parts of a calf that were often discarded. That’s why in Tenniel’s illustrations, the Mock Turtle is depicted with the head, hooves, and a tail of a calf on a turtle-shell body. Costume designer Lucien Besche’s sketch for the 1886 stage adaptation of Alice in London, pictured above, shows a similar approach to the character.

So Sigler crafted an exhibit that introduces visitors to Charles Dodgson—better known by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll—and the little-known story of Alice’s birth on a rowboat trip near Oxford in July 1862. Dodgson, a mathematician at Oxford, dreamt up Wonderland while entertaining the three young daughters of his friend Henry Liddell, one of whom was named Alice. The story captivated the sisters that day, and has delighted generations of readers ever since. Sigler hopes even more will choose to “begin at the beginning” by picking up their own copy after wandering the galleries.

“I hope our visitors are inspired to read the original,” Sigler says, “and other books as well. For us in the humanities, there’s a larger mission of getting people more engaged with literature. We hope they’ll leave with a sense of why it’s so important to hold onto this literary history.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will be on display at the Harry Ransom Center Feb. 10—July 6, 2015.

 Images courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.


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