There's much pleasure to be had in "Sendak at Please Touch Museum" - an extraordinarily beautiful interactive exhibition that has been permanently installed at Philadelphia's leading museum for the under-8 crowd.
In an unusual collaboration with the umbrella title "Sendak in Philadelphia," that show is sharing the spotlight with "Sendak at the Rosenbach," a more arcane exhibition that highlights Sendak's activities as an illustrator, set designer and collector. Co-curated by Sendak and Vincent Giroud, a curator at Yale's Beinecke Library, it will be on view at the Rosenbach Museum & Library through Oct. 30. Both shows are dedicated to the memory of Sendak's brother, Jack, who died in February and whose portrait (by Sendak) adorns the Please Touch show.
The joint exhibitions were the brainstorm of Rosenbach director Stephen K. Urice, who had no trouble persuading Please Touch president and executive director Nancy D. Kolb, and then Sendak himself, to get on board. "I couldn't imagine a broader reach between two cultural institutions," Urice said with a chuckle.
The two shows, despite sharing common subject matter, are meant for vastly different audiences. This is not a problem as long as families are clear on what to expect. Sendak's original drawings are wonderful. But the Rosenbach's two cramped exhibition galleries, with their high display cases and complex labels, are not designed to accommodate small children.
On the other hand, some adults may find themselves a little baffled by the Please Touch exhibition, which Sendak last week hailed as the first-ever three-dimensional realization of his work. By Sendak's edict, there are no words in the show except those of four of his most famous stories, Where the Wild Things Are (1963), In the Night Kitchen (1970), Outside Over There (1981) and We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy (1993).
Grownups may admire the Please Touch show, as I did, from an aesthetic point of view, and as a celebration of both literacy and the power of the human imagination. But it really takes the uninhibited response of small children, who tackled the show with a rush of joy, to appreciate what the museum has accomplished.
"I think it's mad in the best sense of the word," Sendak said of the exhibition, adding that it boasted a "rambling stream-of-consciousness continuity."
In case you're wondering, it also has plenty for kids to do. Entering the main body of the show, visitors are enveloped by the world of Where the Wild Things Are, from Max's bedroom to the ship that bears him away to the kingdom of the Wild Things. (The Rosenbach show, which has the startling original watercolors Sendak executed for the book, reminds us that the Wild Things were modeled after his "half-feared, half-detested" Brooklyn relatives.)
At the Please Touch, children can climb on Max's bed, pull a rope that turns a bedpost into a tree, navigate a boat that moves up and down on imaginary swells, and push buttons that cause painted beasts to emit unearthly howls. If that's not enough noise, they can beat on a set of cookware resembling a drum set.
Next, kids get a chance to clamber into a tree and slither down a slide into a mixing bowl, in imitation of Mickey from In the Night Kitchen. They can pump milk, manipulate a small plane, and play with a variety of baking supplies.
The section on Outside Over There is overshadowed by the final portion of the show, inspired by We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy, a saga of urban homelessness. It is a sort of homeless playground - with tents, crates, and cardboard boxes, as well as crayons for coloring and a library full of Sendak stories and other children's books.
Large-scale books by Sendak are also included in the Please Touch show, but their pages are far too difficult to turn.
The Rosenbach show offers no overarching narrative to guide visitors along; familiarity with Sendak is assumed. Visitors come away with an impression of Sendak's artistic versatility, and of the variety of his influences - from the engravings of Durer and William Blake to pre-Raphaelite paintings.
The style of In the Night Kitchen, we learn, pays a debt to both comic books and Laurel and Hardy movies. By contrast, German Romantic influences pervade Outside Over There, whose mischievous baby-stealing goblins also are linked to the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
The second gallery of the Rosenbach show offers a glimpse of Sendak as a theatrical and opera designer and as a collector of diverse tastes: He loves Victorian illustrators, the scientific sketches of Beatrix Potter, the novelist Herman Melville and, unsurprisingly, the original works of the Brothers Grimm.
IF YOU GO
* "Sendak at Please Touch Museum," 210 N. 21st St., is on view permanently. Hours are 9 to 4:30 p.m. daily, and until 6 p.m. from July 1 through Labor Day. Admission is $6.50 for adults and children age 1 or over; $5 for seniors, and free for children under age 1. Information: 215-963-0667.
* "Sendak at the Rosenbach," 2010 Delancey Place, is on view through Oct. 30. Museum is closed in August. Hours are Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Last tour is at 2:45 p.m. Admission is $3.50 for adults; $2.50 for students and seniors, and $2 for exhibition only. Information: 215-732-1600.