Melissa Nightingale takes a journey down the rabbit hole

In front of me are two doors, and I have a choice to make.

If I'm feeling "adventurous", it's the door on the left, according to the museum staff member at the beginning of the Wonderland exhibition in Singapore.

And adventurous I am. With a feeling of childlike excitement, I crouch down beside the tiny door and push it open, crawling through on my hands and knees. Down the rabbit hole I go.

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I'm not the first person to shuffle through the start of the exhibition this way. I wonder whether anybody has taken the regular-sized door on the right, or whether, like me, everyone decided to channel their inner Alice and take the more nostalgic path.

The travelling exhibition, which will open at Te Papa on December 7, is magic from the beginning.

Visitors must choose between a regular door and a tiny door to begin their journey. Photo / Melissa Nightingale
Visitors must choose between a regular door and a tiny door to begin their journey. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

Wonderland celebrates the screen history of English author Lewis Carroll's timeless stories – Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) – in an experiential exhibition.

Even from the moment you walk in, before you choose which door you want to enter, you are sucked into Wonderland.

Former Auckland girl Malia Reinders' favourite part, in fact, is the very first thing you see when you walk through the entrance.

Malia, 7, and her mum Sieva Jackson visited the exhibition at the Art Science Museum in Singapore, where they have been living for three years.

"I liked it when we saw Alice, she was swirling," said Malia, referring to the black-and-white moving spiral projected on to the first wall, with a silhouette of Alice tumbling in the middle.

A wall-length animated screen allows visitors to see their own photo dashing around on a card soldier. Photo / Melissa Nightingale
A wall-length animated screen allows visitors to see their own photo dashing around on a card soldier. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

The exhibition made such an impact on Malia, she immediately wanted to do it all again once she came out, ranking it "100,000" out of five.

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"I liked everything," she announced.

It's not hard to see why. Even for children that haven't grown up with the movies and books, Wonderland has something for all ages.

For the adults it's the fascinating history behind the classic tale and its many renditions, for the kids it's whirlwind of sensory experiences.

There's something disorientating and tension-building about walking through the exhibition. Sounds play all over the set. In the distance you hear the recorded sound of someone knocking loudly on a door. In the background a clock chimes. Above you, a pocket watch ticks urgently.

The noises are always moving, taking you by surprise when it sounds as though someone is knocking right behind you.

The exhibition includes costumes, scripts, illustrations, movie posters, and more. Photo / Melissa Nightingale
The exhibition includes costumes, scripts, illustrations, movie posters, and more. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

After I crawl through the tiny door, there are several more doors to choose from. I take the far left one, and am immediately confused. Am I looking into a mirror? No. There's the faint image past my reflection of a teenager on the other side. He hesitantly raises a hand and waves, and I wave back.

The fun of Wonderland is that you're not only interacting with the exhibition, but with the visitors around you.

At one point I bend down to look at a framed hole in the wall – is it a picture? A mirror? A window? I'm startled to see a face looking back at me. She is just as startled. It is simply a hole, we could reach through and shake hands if we wanted to.

Throughout the exhibition there are numerous doors to open, drawers to pull out, and places to close yourself in. The walls are filled with photographs, illustrations, pieces of writing and more, all telling the story of how Alice in Wonderland came to be.

There's projected movie clips on the walls showing old movie scenes, some silent and sepia-toned.

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The "pool of tears" displayed a series of illustrations. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

I sit in a room filled with eight wooden, leather-bound chairs and watch a scene flicker across the wall, while the sound of the projector whirs behind me. I can hear an eerie, echoing dripping sound somewhere nearby.

You could spend a long time in Wonderland and still feel there's more to see.

There are more than 300 unique objects including costumes, puppets, magic lantern projectors, props, concept drawings, first-edition publications and illustrations, and animation cels.

English author Lewis Carroll's tales have been made into more than 40 films and 30 television programmes. The exhibition also charts the evolution of special effects from pre-cinema and silent films, to animation, puppetry, live action, and CGI.

There is plenty to see in the Wonderland exhibition. Photo / Melissa Nightingale
There is plenty to see in the Wonderland exhibition. Photo / Melissa Nightingale

It ranges from the cute and child-friendly to the bizarre and somewhat disturbing. I watched one film clip in which the white rabbit tries to cut off Alice's arm with a hacksaw.

There's a Mad Hatter tea party involving an immersive light display, and a long wall with card soldiers running back and forth, painting roses from red to white. Visitors can have their photo taken and pasted onto one of the card soldiers, then watch as their own face zips across the screen.

Sieva Jackson said it was "like a sensory overload" for Malia.

"It was just fabulous," she said.

Jackson's favourite part was seeing all the pictures she'd never seen before, telling the story of the people behind the tale.

Malia Reinders enters the exhibition through the small door. Photo / Supplied
Malia Reinders enters the exhibition through the small door. Photo / Supplied

"I just think it's a fun thing to do with your child because I would have grown up with it, and she's seen bits and pieces of it . . . it's nice to have something in common that you can share together, from my childhood to hers.

"I think it's one of those things where you can go through it again and again and find something different each time."

She recommended Kiwis visit the exhibition when it opens in Wellington, saying it was great to learn the behind the scenes facts of the story.

Wonderland was conceived and created by curators Jessica Bram and Sarah Tutton at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, and was designed by exhibition and theatrical designer Anna Tregloan.

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DETAILS
Wonderland runs at Te Papa from December 7 to March 2020. A family-of-four pass costs $59.95. For other tickets and information, got to tepapa.govt.nz.