Children’s literature takes center stage at the Rabbit hOle Explor-A-Storium. In this view of the first floor and grand staircase, co-founder Deb Pettid reclines in a bathtub bench for “Harry the Dirty Dog” by Gene Zion, and co-founder Pete Cowdin leans against David from “No, David!” by David Shannon.
In the Meantime, the Interactive Children’s Literature Museum is Ramping Up its Employment Opportunities for Artists
These days, any update on the Rabbit hOle, the world’s first Explor-a-Storium, needs to address a certain elephant in the room.
When will it open?
Co-founders Pete Cowdin and Debbie Pettid originally hoped the four-story warehouse turned children’s literature museum in North Kansas City might be up and running by the end of 2019. Later, the target date was pushed back to 2020. And then, of course, the coronavirus complicated everything.
“We’re still shooting for 2021,” Cowdin says. “Working day to day on a scenario for a soft opening in June. Or maybe September. The truth is, we’re lucky. We could be open right now, and that would be 100 times worse. But we’re chomping at the bit.”
The couple, both artists themselves, successfully sold children’s books at the Reading Reptile for nearly 30 years. But they also dreamed of creating something unique, something immersive that would celebrate and amplify the joys of reading for kids and families.
Spoiler alert — they dream big.
“We just finished almost $4.5 million of construction,” including HVAC, electrical and concrete work,” Cowdin notes on a stroll through the building’s 165,000-square-foot shell. Newly built spiral stairways, a mysterious pit and lengthy lighting grids hint at the spectacle to come.
Like two of the institutions that inspired all this — City Museum in St. Louis and Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, the Rabbit hOle’s goal is to deliver an interactive experience where learning opportunities and surprises lurk around every corner.
“Our job is to bring people into the history of literature. We want to create an environment where you don’t have to love reading,” Cowdin explains. “But you will have fun and hopefully go away with a new feeling about it.”
“It’s really about the shared experiences and conversations that follow,” Pettid adds.
The thrill of discovery starts here immediately. An entrance ramp leads down to a cozy underground burrow — apparently home to a shadowy, somewhat magical character named Fox Rabbit.
Fox Rabbit is an original creation designed to help visitors “connect the dots” inside this imaginary world, but there will be plenty of familiar faces and figures sprinkled about: Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel; Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters; Perez and Martina; and Goodnight Moon, to name a few.
Dozens more iconic images will pop from a panorama depicting more than 100 years of children’s literature. Pettid, who’s sculpting the 100-foot-long 3D mural, was inspired by dioramas at the KU Museum of Natural History.
The featured attractions at the Rabbit hOle, the permanent and temporary exhibits, promise to be as varied as the works they portray. That includes walk-through sized pages of classic and popular books. But Pettid emphasizes, “they won’t all tell an entire story.”
Instead, many will bring specific passages or plot points to life, often with the aid of electronics, lighting and other theatrical touches.
Perhaps best of all, Cowdin says, the exhibits will be iterative. That is, as the museum ages, displays can be altered and modified to keep the inventory from getting stale.
“We don’t want you to be able to see it all in one visit. Keeping you coming back . . . that’s part of our evil plan!”
While there’s never been anything quite like this in Kansas City — or the book world — Cowdin believes it’s the cost-effectiveness of their model that ultimately makes the project possible.
“We can build exhibits for between $50 and $150 per square foot compared to the national average for children’s museums of $500 to $600 because we invest in our people up front. It gives us flexibility, and we save in the long run.”
Kansas city artist Charlie Mylie, now an author and illustrator of children’s books himself, has been working with Cowdin and Pettid on various aspects of the Rabbit hOle for nearly seven years.
“One of the interesting things is that it constantly asks me to think about more than just my own medium,” Mylie says.
And it often requires that an artist put aside his own creative urges to best serve the author or illustrator’s original vision. That can be tricky.
“I don’t romanticize it anymore,” Mylie admits. “It’s hard work.”
But at times it can be very satisfying, as Mylie discovered during construction of the “Last Stop on Market Street” exhibit, an installation that neatly capsulizes the Explor-a-Storium concept. Tucked inside a charming homemade bus, a seamless combination of sound, lights and cleverly rendered images recreate the Caldecott Medal-winning book in seven minutes.
Mylie remembers being tasked with some basic painting on the project. But seeing the high-grade carpentry, sculpting and fabric touches his peers put into it gave him a nudge. “I wanted to perform my best to match their excellence,” he says.
One of the museum’s newest employees is Scribe Ross, known for his colorful work at Children’s Mercy Hospital. Ross says he appreciates the flexibility the Rabbit hOle gives him to pursue his own art outside the warehouse walls.
But he’s equally enthused about the chance to collaborate within them. “There are parts of the job we’re all learning together,” Ross explains. “Everyone has been great helping and lifting each other up. It’s a really refreshing environment to be in.”
As opening day grows closer, Cowdin knows that the pressures of staying organized without compromising the Rabbit hOle’s creative core will intensify dramatically.
He and Pettid expect to have as many as 25 to 30 designers and fabricators working with them, cranking out theme-park worthy content in wood, metal and foam.
Can they find that many qualified candidates locally?
Cowdin thinks so, thanks to the Kansas City Art Institute and other nearby schools producing lots of well-trained artistic talent.
“Do-it-yourself is definitely the way to go,” he says emphatically. “And it’s a gift we’re giving to Kansas City. Real career opportunities for artists . . . so they can choose to stay here.”
The Rabbit hOle will launch phase one of a two-part fundraising campaign in mid-September. For details, www.rabbitholekc.org.
All photos by Jim Barcus