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Exhibition visitors young and old can explore a re-creation of the world imagined by Lewis Carroll. Photo/Phoebe Powell/Courtesy of ACMI

Alice through the lens: Behind Te Papa's new Wonderland exhibition

Te Papa’s new exhibition aims to immerse you in the cinematic world inspired by Lewis Carroll.

After it arrived in bookstores in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s tale of a young girl falling down a rabbit hole was soon on its way to becoming not just one of the most popular children’s books in the English language, but a story film-makers would return to again and again. The influence of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its 1871 sequel, Through the Looking Glass, on movies extended to films that weren’t simply adaptations of the books. And their traces are to be found in video games, comics, pop music – especially during the psychedelic era – classical works and in the language itself.

But it’s the long life of Alice on screen that’s inspired the Australian Centre for Moving Image exhibition, Wonderland-Te Ao Mīharo, which starts at Te Papa this month.

Why Alice? ACMI co-curator Sarah Tutton says the exhibition, which took three years to develop, also charts the history of cinema.

Carroll himself was an avid magic lantern slide projectionist and photographer, both media being prototypes for cinema. It wasn’t until 1903 that Alice began to move in a black-and-white film – Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland, a short 12-minute movie, of which only eight minutes of scratchy footage survive.

Te Papa’s blockbuster summer offering is an interactive experience for visitors who can see and experience the first-ever survey of Alice on screen, says Te Papa’s New Zealand histories and cultures curator Stephanie Gibson. The exhibition focuses on Carroll’s original books and several films in particular, including a couple of troubled ones. Lou Bunin’s Alice au Pays des Merveilles was released in 1949 but not shown in Britain for almost four decades as the representation of the Queen of Hearts bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Queen Victoria, who had been a fan of the books. The film also fell down the rabbit hole in the US, as Walt Disney Productions was making its own Alice film at the same time and sued Bunin to prevent its release. Disney’s 1951 animation was the first colour version of Alice in Wonderland, but Walt himself regarded the film as a failure.

Jonathan Miller’s 1966 BBC television production and Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 surrealist animation were regarded as significant. In 2010, Tim Burton’s dark fantasy film featured Johnny Depp and cutting-edge CGI technology.

Exhibition visitors young and old can explore a re-creation of the world imagined by Lewis Carroll. Photo/Phoebe Powell/Courtesy of ACMI
Developed by exhibition creator Anna Tregloan, Wonderland starts in the author’s reimagined drawing room, where visitors choose the Alice in Wonderland character they wish to be as they journey through Wonderland. In the Hallway of Doors, every door opens to different displays, including some of Carroll’s original Alice books from 1865 to 1890.

Only 22 copies of the first edition of Alice in Wonderland were printed, as illustrator Sir John Tenniel was upset about the reproduction quality of his drawings, and so the author withdrew the print run. One of these is on display – behind the looking glass, of course. Gibson says Wonderland should appeal to book lovers, not just film buffs. “It’s exciting to see literature elevated through popular culture. Readers are so familiar with Alice, but they probably don’t know about the journey she has taken since 1865.’’

There are also digitally powered interactive features such as a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, where visitors sit at the table as items come to life and disappear.

“It’s been a big surprise to visitors to come across the surrealist side of the Alice story. Some of the content is quite adult.’’

ACMI’s last show at Te Papa, Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition, drew 135,000 visitors in 2015/16. Says Gibson: “Wonderland will pique the interest of just about every visitor. If you’re interested in film and how it has changed over time, Wonderland will be a very rich experience.

“Alice was so curious and always up for a challenge, and that’s the nature of film history, too.

“Over the decades, Alice has had really diverse interpretations. It will be a great exhibition for those who think they know Alice. They’ll find out more about Alice than they possibly ever imagined.’’

Wonderland-Te Ao Mīharo is at Te Papa Museum of New Zealand from December 7 to March 8.

This article was first published in the December 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.