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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Hey, Whatever Happened With the Rabbit hOle? The Future of the World’s First Explor-a-Storium

It was a while ago so it’s okay if you don’t remember, but back in May of 2016 I wrote a piece on this blog called The Rabbit hOle or “It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it can’t suck.” Here is how it started:

“This is big. Maybe the biggest idea in the realm of children’s literature I’ve seen in years. Possibly my entire career. I don’t like using the term ‘gamechanger’ but I can’t think of a better word in this particular case.”

Hyperbole? I’m prone to it, but in this particular case I was right on the money. You see, there once were two booksellers by the names of Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid. Formerly of the Kansas City bookstore The Reading Reptile (if ever a bookstore had a cult following, this one did), they had a dream. Essentially, they wanted to turn the entire notion of children’s books and museums on their head. They wanted to make an Explor-a-Storium a.k.a. an interactive children’s museum where everything inside was children’s book related. Mad, you say? Absolutely. But it’s the crazy ideas that yield the greatest rewards.

Now this was all back in 2016 and there was a lot of buzz around the project. Big time celebrity children’s book creators lent their name to it. The Kansas City Star was writing articles with titles like Rabbit Hole aims to make KC world capital of children’s books, top U.S. publishers sign on. There was an Indiegogo campaign, which raised $114,207 towards the project. And then a permanent home was identified and purchased. A quiet capital campaign ensued, and construction began.

Now considering the sheer size and scope of the project, we haven’t heard much about it in the past few years. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. What have Cowdin, Pettid, and all those other Kansas City folks been up to for the past four years? Sometimes it’s best to find out straight from the horse’s mouth. So I called up Pete and we had a nice long chat. Here then is the Rabbit hOle’s past, present, and future. And it looks amazing.

When will The Rabbit hOle Open?

First off, pretty much the first thing I had to know was whether or not the project was anywhere close to completion. As of right now, I’m happy to report that we could get a glimpse of the project as early as December 2020. This will consist primarily of a soft opening followed by a more robust, grand opening in early 2021.

What has the construction, until now, consisted of?

Well, the project was begun about 4 years ago. It was envisioned originally as a $14 million dollar project and as of right now they’ve raised just over $10 million, including bank financing. To break some of that down, $2.2 million went toward the purchase of the building, with nearly $8 million already committed to building renovations and exhibit fabrication efforts.

What will the place look like when it’s finished?

So to make all of this happen, the folks behind the project had to essentially raise the money and the building at the same time. And in many ways it’s a fairly unusual project. Why? Because it’s really large. The Rabbit hOle will be located in a former paint warehouse that consists of 165,000 square feet. Of that space, about 85,000 square feet will be up and running when the doors open later this year and 35,000 square feet will be committed to exhibit space.

All told, the Explor-a-Storium will have nearly 50 staff members when they open. Inside there will be a wide range of different interactive and deeply immersive exhibits. Where do they get these exhibits? They build them on site, of course! As such you’ll see things like . .

A bench designed to look like Harry the Dirty Dog’s bathtub (in process) or . . .

A life-size Katy No-Pocket.

Even a life-size version of the bus from Last Stop on Market Street! To name but a very few.

Expect a Richard Scarry garage underground where you can exchange a stroller for a pickle, or a carrot, or a banana, and a cafe as well that’s done in an automat style featuring famous children’s book food. (Mickey’s cake from the Night Kitchen anyone?) I hope they make it look like the automat in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!

But that’s not all! In addition to the exhibits you’ll find a full on bookstore, maker space (the Tons of Fun Room), and a full on print shop and bindery (letterpress, silkscreen, etc.). This part will be connected to a writing lab with the ultimate goal of getting kids to create their own stories. As for the print shop, that’s where they’ll be creating some of the products for the bookstore. Actually, that print shop will also offer a residency program for authors and artists. And can we just talk about the opportunities for working with educators? On top of everything there will even be a resource library that will include an exhibit library, a teaching library, and a reading room. I forgot to ask Pete if he’d be hiring a librarian for the position. Can you imagine? Talk about a dream gig.

Where does The Rabbit hOle get its inspiration?

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with The City Museum of St. Louis. Here in the Midwest it’s pretty much considered one of the greatest interactive museums in the world. Housed in a 100-year-old warehouse, it’s the ideal model for what Rabbit hOle is trying to do. More inspiration came in the form of Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf, an art collective that organized and became… well… you kind of have to see it yourself. The Rabbit hOle looks to these two spaces as business models as well.

So why the name “The Rabbit hOle”?

Well, aside from the obvious Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland connotations, there is another reason. To accompany the creation of this Explor-a-Storium, The Rabbit hOle has created an origin story for an original character of their own. Fox Rabbit is a mystical creature with the enviable ability to move between the world of stories and the real world. Alas, his backstory is a tragic one. The poor little guy was orphaned, but fortunately was taken in and raised by some friendly bunnies. This, of course, means that he is hungry all the time around his family but fortunately for all parties involved Fox Rabbit is a strict vegetarian. In fact, he has helpfully parlayed this hunger into a hunger for stories, which he searches through endlessly.

Want to see Fox Rabbit yourself? Well, one of the best things about The Rabbit hOle is how you enter it. Imagine going down into a limestone grotto, located in the front of the building. This 1500 square foot grotto that goes underground opens up into Fox Rabbit’s workshop, den, and collections. After that it’s just a quick jaunt up a ramp to the first floor and into the Explor-a-Storium. Honestly the story of Fox Rabbit gives The Rabbit Hole a kind of language to draw kids into the exhibit space. Now it’s not just an old warehouse full of cool stuff. There’s a whole aesthetics and history at work here.

What still needs to be done?

Pete says that right now, in addition to ongoing conversations with publishers and creators around rights and permissions, the Rabbit hOle is busy raising the final $4 million in funds that will allow them to finish construction and complete exhibit production and installation.Expect a lot of publishing partners to be involved with this venture in some way. With $4 million yet to raise, there is still much to be done.

The thing to remember about all of this is that this place is not going to be a static thing. They’ll have anywhere between 35 to 40 exhibits to begin with (large and small) with several dozen more in various stages of development. In fact, the Explor-a-Storium will be continually expanded with new exhibits that sometimes are analog and sometimes involve technology (though in a cool, subtle way). Over time The Rabbit hOle will fully develop the first and second floors, then move on to the third, and then the fourth.

You can follow The Rabbit hOle at their Instagram account rabbit_hole_kc, and sign up for email updates at there website, www.rabbitholekc.org. Many thanks to Pete and Deb for answering my many questions about the project and for updating me.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

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