Monday, May 4, 2009

The Heart of a Wild Rumpus

While at AAM in Philadelphia, I visited the Maurice Sendak exhibit, There's a Mystery There--Sendak on Sendak at the Rosenbach Museum and Library--and found, to my delight, an exhibit that was full of wonder, sophisticated in concept, and yet accessible on so many levels. It was an exhibit that was fun to look at and I thought it must have been fun to work on because the care for audience--and for the exhibit's content--seemed so evident to me.

What made it such a good exhibit?

You could enter the content at many levels--there were substantive, lengthy section and object labels--but they were well-written and provided fascinating insights into Sendak's work and life.
But that wasn't the only way to explore content: you'd think an exhibit on this particular topic would have had many interactive elements--but the space at the Rosenbach is small--and so beautifully printed free gallery guides were in each room, each with a punch-out character that you could use on the small brochure "stage" that you collected first, to create your own stories.

On one side, the guide read, "Dear Grown-ups" and on the other, "Kids!" The Grown-up side provided grown-up commentary, asked questions and suggested fun activities for home. The side for Kids asked great, kid-level questions--both about close observation and about feelings. The guide encourages kids to ponder questions such as:
  • What's the strangest dream you can remember?
  • How do you think dreams are like stories and what can you learn from them?
  • How does he make trees in each book and how does that give each forest a certain character?
And one telling detail expressed how much the Rosenbach staff thought about audience. In each room, small wooden step stools were pushed under the cases, so young audiences could pull them out, step up and take a close look at Sendak's original illustrations.

The exhibit was divided into four clearly understandable and accessible sections: Kids: Innocence and Experience; Beasts of Burden, Influences and Into the Forest. Each opening label clearly framed the concept for the viewer, and the family gallery guide pieces supported it. The work shown included the very beginning drawings and illustrations, ideas shown in development, final illustrations and the books themselves. In addition, Sendak drew from a world of inspiration and the Rosenbach's rich collections provided more context in several areas of the exhibition.

Unobtrusive video installations in each gallery featured interviews with Maurice Sendak himself, with whom the Rosenbach has a long association. I just watched a few of them, but they were both brief and interesting--I liked seeing him, at his desk, explaining the tools he uses--just the same as when he was a kid.

One more detail: at one video monitor, set on a desk, a label mentioned that Sendak often clipped newspaper articles and photos for inspiration--and he kept them in his drafting table drawer, for inspiration. You're then invited to open the drawer and take a look at laminated copies of some of those newsclips--which then invited me to ponder the connection between the clips and the finished work.

I saw the exhibit after hearing Malcolm Gladwell's talk at AAM, which was about the ways in which creativity is not usually the result of a single stroke of genius. Rather creativity, in any field, is sustained, deliberate work. Sendak is a masterful illustration of this, mining his own childhood, sources ranging from Melville to Mozart, and his own deep, complex imagination to create a sustained body of work that's delighted generations of readers young and old. I came home and took a quick trip to the shelf of no-longer used kids books in my daughter's room--and there were several Sendak books--Max and Little Bear quite at home in my house. Like many good exhibits, it helped me make meaning, not only of Sendak, but also connected me back to my own family memories.

There's a companion website, with this quote from Maurice Sendak on the home page:

"That's the best fun in all this--the layers of meaning, the layers of storytelling."

Well, isn't that true for exhibits? And if not, why not?

Moishe from minipixel's photostream on Flickr
Rosenbach exterior, from srhbth's photostream on Flickr
Where the Wild Things Are, from JAmor's photostream on Flickr


Emily A. said...

Ooh, that sounds like a great exhibit. I love Sendak's work - he did the sets for Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker, which was an INSTITUTION when I was growing up in Seattle - I hope I can visit the museum one of these days!

Lovely review, thank you!

Linda said...

Thanks Emily--
Actually, I'm afraid the exhibit was closing yesterday--but for some reason I think it might be traveling...but the Rosenbach worth a visit in any case I think--very interesting place.

Unknown said...

Hi. I work with the Rosenbach - thanks for the great post about the exhibition! The show will in fact be traveling and locations should be announced soon. The Rosenbach also has a dedicated Sendak gallery, so if you are able to visit in the future, there will always be some Sendak on display! Thanks again.

Rosenbach Museum & Library said...

The Rosenbach has now officially announced the first stop for the traveling version of There's a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak! The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco will be hosting the exhibition from September 8, 2009 through January 19, 2010. Visit their site at

Until then, check out A Sendakian Sampler: Drawings A to Z at the Rosenbach! You can also visit and contribute to the Rosen-Blog at or follow us on Twitter:

Linda said...

Thanks for the update, Rosenbach. I look forward to hearing about more locations for the exhibit.