Campus close-up: Queen Mary University of London

A scholar’s project on Lewis Carroll’s heroine helps an institution boost its links with the capital’s museums

May 7, 2015

Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

A cat may look at a king: C. F. A. Voysey’s fabric design is featured in The Alice Look exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood

Queen Mary University of London has long had close links with the museums of East London such as the Ragged School Museum. Its Centre for Studies of Home, launched in 2011, is a partnership with The Geffrye Museum of the Home dedicated to public seminars and knowledge exchange workshops as well as research. And now Kiera Vaclavik, senior lecturer in French and comparative literature, has been taken on as curator by the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green for an exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Alice Look exhibition considers the changing image of Alice in successive editions of the book and its 1871 sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There; the phenomenon of people dressing up as Alice, in performance and fancy dress, which can be dated back to the late 1870s; and her emergence as a global icon. Viewers will discover, for example, when and how she acquired her blue dress, white pinafore, black shoes and eponymous hairband.

Yet alongside the Alices familiar from the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel and the 1951 Disney film, where she appears as what Vaclavik calls “a standard but pretty and well-turned-out child”, we get a Provençal Alice, a Swahili Alice, a Japanese Lolita-style Alice, not to mention pop cultural Alices everywhere from book covers by Vivienne Westwood to an Annie Leibovitz Christmas photo essay in American Vogue. Meanwhile, a short film, partly funded by QMUL, offers a collage of advertisements, catwalk images and pop videos such as one featuring Gwen Stefani dressed as Alice by John Galliano.

The exhibition arises directly out of an Arts and Humanities Research Council early career fellowship for 2014-15, titled “Addressing Alice: The Emergence of a Style Icon, 1865-1900”, which seems set to have a startling range of “outputs”.

Even before she had got properly started, Vaclavik contacted Liberty, the London department store, to tell it that Lewis Carroll had suggested “a frock…of cream-coloured Liberty silk” for an actress performing the role of Alice. This provided the spur for Liberty’s Alice-themed textile collection, Pictures and Conversations, launched in January, where Vaclavik was invited in to brief the head of art and design, give a presentation to the team and choose a fabric from the archives.

A QMUL collaboration fund designed to enable academics to team up with non-academic partners has also given Vaclavik a chance to work with a composer on a new piece of music – due to be premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in November – inspired by Victorian sheet music on Alice-related themes.

Many grant proposals include vague aspirations to turn research projects with visual appeal into exhibitions. By the time she approached the AHRC, Vaclavik had already built on her existing connections with the Victoria and Albert Museum to secure a commission for The Alice Look and could list this among the definite outputs.

She was given “total freedom in terms of content”, she says, despite having never been a curator, although she believes that core academic tasks such as “drawing up syllabuses and creating a corpus of material for a research project” require similar skills. Nonetheless, mounting a major exhibition also requires abilities less often required of academics such as “knowing how to tell a story”, understanding “the importance of being visually arresting” and “an awareness of different audiences”.

An Alice and Fashion conference at the museum on 9 May will bring together academics – including QMUL’s Aneesh Barai and Shahidha Bari as well as Vaclavik – and others to explore Carroll’s heroine as “both follower of fashion and trend-setter” over the past century and a half. Although this is aimed at a broad public, Vaclavik is also speaking at a number of more purely academic events during this anniversary year.

All these represent spin-offs from the main academic output of the project, namely a major monograph. Asked if there was a danger the exhibition could distract her from this task, Vaclavik says the book will focus on the 19th century, but will also include “a post-1901 epilogue” for which “what is happening round the exhibition” will provide excellent material. She has already been interviewed by The Times of India and fashion magazines in Chile and Colombia – yet more striking evidence that Alice is now “a global phenomenon with international appeal”.

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com

In numbers

150 – the number of years since the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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University of Sheffield
A month-long arts and humanities festival is being staged by the University of Sheffield. The institution is hosting a series of events throughout May structured around five themes in literature, film, culture and philosophy. Events will include a presentation of unheard songs from the musical My Fair Lady, discovered by Dominic McHugh, a Sheffield musicologist, and a tour of First World War training trenches near the city led by Helen Ullathorne, an archaeologist.

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Reader's comments (1)

Typical! Alice was wrong to tell Humpty Dumpty “the word is what it meant, exactly”. Closing the dialogue so early, and adding: “neither more nor less”, is where she went wrong. Alice’s wonderland is so last century:).

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