Generations have surrendered to the surreal and fantastical dimensions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequels. So when London’s V&A Museum launched an exhibit to celebrate the iconic book series, it only seemed appropriate that the team should turn to virtual reality (VR)—creating a magical new way for visitors to tumble down the rabbit hole.
Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser charts the evolution of Lewis Carroll’s book from lowly, handwritten manuscript to global phenomenon, highlighting its deep influence on film, fashion, art and music. Along with its theatrical sets, large-scale digital projections and immersive environments, the exhibit also marks the V&A’s first foray into VR. WithCurious Alice VR, both in-person and virtual visitors can play hedgehog croquet, search for the white rabbit’s missing glove or ponder the hookah-smoking caterpillar’s riddles.
Inspired by Carroll’s exploration of time, space, and travel, the team’s goal was to deliver an exhibition that would spark a new generation of interactive experiences, said Kate Bailey, senior curator of theatre and performance at the V&A. “It was also a perfect springboard for our own exploration into virtual reality.”
To turn Curious Alice into true reality, V&A partnered with HTC Vive Arts, VR game studio Preloaded and the VR platform Engage. The team also recruited Icelandic illustrator Kristjana S Williams, who crafted a multilayered style that not only worked for the museum’s traditional catalog, but also could “translate and animate well in a virtual environment,” said Bailey.
Just like Alice, the project team encountered surprises. Most notably, the pandemic forced the exhibit’s opening to be delayed nearly a year to May 2021. During lockdowns, team members often worked on the experience from their homes—forcing them to rethink creation and collaboration.
Bailey sees it as part of a journey that will continue. “We are hungry for new cultural experiences.” And that means exploring new turf. “Staging exhibitions across the physical and virtual realms will become increasingly relevant. There is huge scope for a permanent museum such as the V&A to not only share its collections outside its walls, but imbue the objects with a wider context.”
For the physical exhibit, the team curated more than 300 objects: illustrations by Ralph Steadman and Disney, fashion from Viktor & Rolf, and Tim Walker’s instantly iconic Pirelli calendar recreating Wonderland with an all-Black cast including RuPaul and Naomi Campbell. The team leaned into star power for each of the exhibit’s themed areas, too. The film section includes costumes designed by Colleen Atwood for Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland. Another section shows surrealist paintings by Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst along with psychedelic music from The Beatles.
While the exhibition is scheduled to close in December, Bailey believes the team’s journey was just as wondrous as Alice’s. “The experience encapsulates a fantastic intersection of scientific ideas and artistic imagination, which is fitting as the books continue to be a springboard for creative technologies.”