Knowledge Center

Banking on KC – Pete Cowdin of The Rabbit Hole


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Kelly Scanlon: Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kellie Scanlon. Joining us on this episode is Pete Cowden, the co founder and co director of The Rabbit Hole, a museum for children's literature that recently opened in North Kansas City. Welcome, Pete.

Hey, thanks.

As I mentioned, it's a museum, but it's really very innovative.

It's one of a kind. This creates an immersive experience around literature. So tell us about what visitors to the Rabbit Hole will experience and what it is that's different about it.

Pete Cowdin: First of all, there aren't that many literature based museums in the country, especially for children. I think we're actually one of two.

The other is a more gallery oriented museum called the Eric Carle Museum. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. There really isn't anything like this, especially in the kids culture. We want families to come and bring them closer to story. We want them to start to see literature as a culture, not just something that kids should do.

Reading is important. Literacy is essential to all learning. We aren't teaching kids how to read, we're teaching kids how to love stories. Really providing a different perspective. Contact point with books, which is experiential, so it's a full body experience when you come in. We have an entry space that we created that we call the Grotto, and it is a sort of magical limestone, shaley grotto that you walk through.

And then you walk down to enter the experience. You go underground, quote, unquote, through a tunnel, uh, that is a burrow that belongs to a character that we invented named Fox Rabbit. Uh, the burrow is spiraled with fiber optic blue roots that glow.

Kelly Scanlon: So when you say immersive, you are actually, you're really inside the story.

It's very tactile experience, very sensory experience, and it comes, the story comes to life around you and you can participate. Yeah. It's very

Pete Cowdin: physical, and that's something we're dealing with. But yeah, when you enter the store, you go through an underground burrow that we created. You come up around a giant blue tree that's, you know, 25 feet tall.

Eventually you'll be able to climb into the tree and out into the museum. So that's another part that will expand. We always say the rabbit hole It's never going to be finished and that's true. We have a 150,000 square foot building and so we've activated the first floor. We have some things we're finishing there, but yeah, all the exhibits are immersive in different ways.

Some of them are immersive just by virtue of their size and you're, you're actually riding a tiger. You're inside a cave with Shel Silverstein or you're climbing through the funny thing mountain. Uh, you're. Going into the fire house with a fire cat and pickles to fire cat, uh, works. So those are very, you know, physical experiences.

And then we have small experiences, small dioramas that are very complex actually. And they're, they're one of our biggest attractions really. Especially for certain age kids we have an exhibit based on a book called Anatole. It's about a mouse in, in Paris.

Kelly Scanlon: Uh, so you and your wife formerly owned the Reading Reptile and that was such an icon for so many families, for so many children.

What was the inspiration behind leaving that and starting this museum, the Rabbit Hole?

Pete Cowdin: So that's a, that's a great question. Many layered answers, at the time when we, in 2014 15, when we were really considering moving on to something else it just was time for us to kind of jump into that bigger idea.

Publishing changed a lot between the Mid 90s and the early aughts. For the worse, in my opinion, I think children's books became a billion dollar business in the early 90s. And that, that up until then, it was sort of a place of its own on the side, inside publishing. And, and the good thing about that was that creators and editors and people got to make what they wanted.

And they, they were part of this hundred year culture that we're, demonstrating in the rabbit hole. It was an artistic endeavor. It was, it was really built around authentic storytelling and art and how to advance the book as a platform. And when the super stores and the internet hit and Children's books kind of took off.

It became much more market driven and sales driven, the industry, and it really took a lot of the joy out of it because there were, there were fewer books coming out that, you know, were kind of connected to, to that culture and there were more and more and more books coming out that were just based on trends and people were kind of replicating books, you know, like, Oh, this book, Series sold really well.

We're going to, we're going to advance this series and having customers being acculturated that way coming in, it did change the experience of book selling because they wanted this and we were like, also our kids grew up and they were old enough that we could take on a project of this size and At least try to make it real.

Kelly Scanlon: Are there any particular technologies or innovative techniques or even simple design concepts that you've implemented to enhance that interactive experience at the Rabbit Hole?

Pete Cowdin: Well, I think the main thing about technology that's important and for us in the design process is that technology is great, like we use digital technology, we use audio landscapes, we use mechanical technology.

What's the most important with the use of any technology that is that it honors the the source material, the book that we're dealing with. So some books don't need that. You know, they're the funny thing is a completely physical exhibit that you can move through. The only thing in that that is vaguely technological is the lighting inside Bobo's Cave, which is the black light experience and that fit for that book.

Mainly when you use technology, you want to use it. Sparingly, and to the greatest impact. I think that goes against a lot of the principles of design and especially in children's museums where a lot of designers think that you have to use as much technology as you can and that immersive means a billion projectors and a lot of electronics.

And that's not right. True. The smallest thing can transport you into an immersive state. And by that I mean using our bus that's based on the last stop on Market Street, which isn't open right now, so hold tight on that. But in the bus, we have an animated story cycle that you sit down on the bus and you sit with the other people.

Passengers who are sculpted characters and the story begins and there's a kind of iconographic animation that starts and there's the sound of the bus but it isn't until the animation begins in the, in the, scene outside starts moving, there's an offset motor underneath the driver's seat that starts right at that point.

And every time that point in the story hits and there are people on the bus, they look up like, holy moly, and then they're totally engrossed. Like they feel like they're moving because it's that simple vibration that we created in the seat to create the sensation of movement. And it really is impactful.

And that's just a tiny little thing. There is digital things happening in there. There's lighting that's going on and then there's the narration, but it's really just that little motor that really just takes it to the next level. And we see in other, especially children's venues, there's a tendency to say children love technology.

They're in the generation of, you know, they're in the digital generation. We're going to, we're going to speak to them in their own language. And that's been a thing we've done for many, many years. And then what happens is you get a museum full of buttons and lights and things and kids pounding on things and moving things.

And we, we actually experienced that. We see kids come into the rabbit hole and it, it has those elements of physical involvement, but they've never been around before. So it's a, it's a disconnect for some kids. They want to run around and punch everything or find the buttons. So, and. I think it's been an interesting education for us since we opened to kind of understand the visitor experience.

I mean, we didn't really know until we opened it what would happen.

Kelly Scanlon: It's gotten great reviews though. I mean, I've seen things in the New York Times and I think NBC Nightly News covered it, NPR covered it. You've had a lot of national coverage. So I read somewhere opening week, you had people from something like 39 states.

Am I remembering that right?

Pete Cowdin: It's been pretty great. Yeah. We, we are getting a lot out of time. People who have, uh, been following the project for years. I mean, we've been, you know, steadily building our following for, for a long time. And of course the opening and then the New York Times story really jumped that up.

And we're topping 22,000 Instagram followers now. And there are just more people seeing it. It's been a real joy to, to see, uh, people come in and, and really just, uh, Dive into it. And, you know, we tried to, we're trying to create a space that can't be fully apprehended in one visit. I mean, even since we opened, it's only been, I don't know.

Six, seven weeks. We have added three new exhibits. We've, uh, including the Turbo Toilet 2000.

Kelly Scanlon: Turbo Toilet 2000? You've got to tell us about that.

Pete Cowdin: Oh, well, so this is a villain from Dave Pilkey's Captain Underpants series. And he's an evil toilet and we built him and put him in one of the stalls that we did not put a toilet in when we were under construction.

And all the, our contractor was like, why are we not putting a toilet in, in this stall? Well, you'll see. So now we have the turbo toilet. It's a surprise. That's the other thing about the rabbit hole. They're just little surprises like that, that you, you have to open the door. We're not going to tell you to open that door.

We're not going to, but somebody is going to. And they have and you can hear them kind of squealing from the bookstore as far away as the bookstore. And you know somebody just opened the turbo toilet stall. And it's fun. It's like, it's, it's exactly, we want the environment to be a discoverable environment.

We want people to go deeper. We have a lot more coming, a lot more to do, and a lot more interpretive things that we are catching up with ourselves.

Kelly Scanlon: This has been a concept of yours and your wife Debbie's for many, many years, more than a decade now. How did you get this off the ground? I know there have been a lot of challenges I interviewed you, I think about four years ago maybe, when you were just starting the concept, uh, so tell us about getting it started.

Pete Cowdin: Yeah, that's been a journey. I mean, it's been eight years. When we closed the Reading Reptile early 2016, we had been working on the rabbit hole for a year already at that point. Yeah, we, we just started, you know, slow and steady and we, we didn't, you know, Debbie and I both, we were in a very steep learning curve throughout the project on, on really every level, you know, from being a non profit to being a museum director to being you know, designing exhibits and things like that.

But I've always told people we just dove into it and we were gonna keep doing it until somebody said we couldn't, right? Like, or the money ran out or it would tell its own story, you know. And we just kept working at it. We kept We had many, many moments where we thought maybe it wasn't going to happen, and we had just as many moments, obviously, where we found out, ah, we can move forward.

COVID was something that happened in the midst of the project. It was not a good thing. Great time for anybody, but it did slow us down in a good way in the sense it gave us more time to work on design. We actually grew our staff during COVID. We kept plugging along and we had just purchased a building a year before that.

So we had many things to do, you know, in terms of construction, exhibit design, fab shop expansion. We had built a fabrication staff of over 20 artists, full time artists and fabricators. It's up to that point where we're just trying to, to sell something that didn't exist. We were trying to sell air in a bottle and, and, you know, convince people to give us money to do that.

Once we got the building, when we came out of COVID or, or emerged from the, the deeper part of it, we were able to get funding back in, you know, kickstart that back up. People wanted to see, especially the, the philanthropic community here, it did take a while and we kept building. Parts of things so that people could understand what we're making.

I will say that the biggest thing that people say or feel when they get to the rabbit hole who have been following the project was embracing the scale of it.

Kelly Scanlon: Both your entrepreneurial ventures, Reading Reptile and now the Rabbit Hole, are centered around childhood literacy and education. Drew you and your wife to that cause?

Pete Cowdin: Uh, just the random chaos of the universe?

Don't you wake up every morning and wonder how you got here? Into this chair, for example, like, you're like,

Kelly Scanlon: how did I get here, exactly. You know, most things take odd twists and turns.

Pete Cowdin: I mean, you also have to see it. Like, people want to see lives, uh, in a very, you know, uh, uh, orderly fashion. That's not how it works.

You know, we were young. Debbie worked in books. It was really Debbie who started, I mean, it's her baby, the reading reptile. She worked in New York for several years. And a famous bookstore at the time called Eeyore's. She got her chops there. She learned everything inside out. There were lots of people who became now beloved authors and illustrators who worked there with her at the time and people who went into high level publishing positions.

But that's where Debbie developed her love for that business and I was just, I was just Puppy Dog followed her to Kansas City, you know, when the time came back in 1988 and I had never anticipated being involved in book selling, much less children's book selling. So, you know, at that time I was just like, yeah, why not?

Let's, let's do it. I discovered books late in life. But the whole thing about the reading reptile was that it was, It was Debbie's project and it, and I came for the ride and then it became our project and we had a family and it became a great place, uh, for us to raise our family and to, um, really, you know, share something with other people that, um, is fundamentally important to the growth of, of young minds and that is to develop this curiosity through story.

Thank you. The wonder in the incredible liberation that a book can provide a young person is, is a driving force and it is still to this day.

Kelly Scanlon: Yeah. So you didn't go into it with that mindset, but it became something that was, uh, probably surprised you after a while that that took hold and that became a passion.

Yeah. Yeah. Looking ahead, what are some of the attractions or programs that you are excited to be introducing? You've hinted at a few of them, but what are some that you can talk about right now?

Pete Cowdin: Well, we have a whole. A bunch of exhibits that are in or coming out of design and into production right now.

We just put out The Curious George. We still have two, uh, areas of that to, to, uh, finish, but it's, it's done enough to present. And, uh, it's a beautiful miniature that has all the neighborhoods of, uh, George's first six books. And The Night Sky from H. A. Ray's Constellation book behind it. We just, finished what did we just do?

Oh, we just finished our kitchen and our cafe just opened. It's called Max's Kansas City. Not everybody's going to get that, but that was a famous sort of club in New York. It's no longer... it's also a double entendre with Myra Coleman's Max the Dog books. So we, we are happy to feature Myra in the museum.

We have just opened the toddler panorama on the second floor. So people can go up to the second floor. There's a 13 boxes that stretch about a hundred and twenty feet. 25 feet, which have 13 books that progress together and that's been really cool. And then we've got Last Stop on Market Street, which I mentioned before, that bus we had built a few years ago, we're going to renovate that a little bit and then we're building an environment for it, so that's going to be the next big exhibit upstairs on the second floor.

That'll be followed by, uh, Earl in the Purple Crayon, and uh, also, uh, J. J. Morales Niño Wrestles the World. So, there's a lot of good stuff coming in 2024. And our art gallery on the second floor, what we call the Discovery Gallery, will open in the fall with its first show, which is going to contain original artwork from My Father's Dragon, which is the exhibit that goes up the steps, the Grand Staircase of, of, uh, from the first floor to the second floor, and there's a dragon flying around above it.

And that's Boris, but we'll have, uh, the original artwork that was originally from the collection of the Curlin Archive up in Minnesota, which is now in Japan, and it's currently being exhibited in four different museums in Japan, it's going to ship directly to us, and we're going to be able to do that.

Kelly Scanlon: You've got some programming on tap, too. Tell us about that.

Pete Cowdin: Yeah right now, you know, just having opened, we're focused totally on the visitor experience and the museum experience, but we're also concurrently building our programming. Start prototyping this summer and then we're going to really kick it in this fall.

So some of the exciting things that are going to happen and are happening now include a makerspace that's actually nearly finished. So the makerspace will be a center in the rabbit hole that will provide activities, arts and crafts that connect back to the creators of the books that are featured in the museum.

So for instance, For instance, Virginia Lee Burton was a textile printer, she's the author and illustrator of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, but she had a group of printers called the Folly Cove Printers who are somewhat famous in the art world. But being able to share, uh, That practice with kids and adults, even to kind of deepen their relationship with authors and illustrators.

So programming is really where we're going to bring the direct experience of story into a more nuanced, informational way. Kind of place where people can start to connect the dots between authors, illustrators, the histories of different people who influenced others. Another really exciting space is, uh, the Story Lab, which is on the second floor.

Now that'll come online in the fall but it's connected to our print shop, which is a working letterpress print shop, which is actually in production right now. We're actually making bookmarks and journals and things that you can buy in the bookstore today. Kids will be able to come in, and adults again, it'll be multi generational, and create stories, and if enough time, be able to create their own books.

So, that's really speaking to the mission of the Rabbit Hole, kids finding their own story, being able to be inspired by the stories of others.

Kelly Scanlon: And bring the whole community together. Talk to us about the impact that you hope the rabbit hole leaves on Kansas City.

Pete Cowdin: You know, it's, it's hard to predict anything, so I'm not sure what the impact will be, and there are probably impacts we don't even know.

Of course, there always are, yeah. But I think the experience is a powerful experience, and I think the rabbit hole is going to bring kids back to school. to books out of the digital world and into books and again to, to find their own story. And that's really a, a major subtext of the experience. I think it's going to bring families back together around the book for an intergenerational experience.

Books are inherently intergenerational and it's really fun, uh, especially in the museum to watch older folks You know, get excited about a book that they know and introduce it to their child or their grandchild and vice versa. So that's going to be exciting and, and is already happening. I think the rabbit hole is going to be a vital resource for teachers in the classroom.

I think, uh, in terms of, you know, Introducing them to books that they can use, you know, for literature based instruction. There aren't many resources for that. We're going to have a resource library that's going to have close to 10, 000 books where it'll be our education hub in the rabbit hole and we'll be doing all kinds of workshops and professional development with educators.

So that's an important transmission point so that teachers can have confidence in using books. And that leads to also librarians who, who, We, I think the rabbit hole is going to become an advocate, not just locally, but nationally for librarians whose, uh, libraries are under attack right now. I think also, importantly, that the rabbit hole is going to increase Kansas City's cultural footprint significantly.

And I think it's going to bring visitors, uh, from around the country and from around the world. And it has. It started doing that, you know. And I think, That's super exciting for us because we, uh, have been meeting a lot of people from everywhere. It's good for the entire city because it brings more people here.

It, you know, obviously has economic consequences that are positive for the city and also supports other institutions because a lot of people, especially when summer comes people will be coming here to see the rabbit hole from around, you know, regionally especially, but from around the country and they're not going to do one thing.

They're going to Go to other museums and other sporting events, possibly, and things like that. So that's something that's been built into our, you know, model from the beginning, and we're excited to see that it's happening already. And As an artist driven project, I hope the rabbit hole impacts and inspires other artists to take a chance and build things that seem improbable, because I think there's a lot, there's a lot more to be done in Kansas City to expand our cultural footprint, you know, and, and make Kansas City really a, a destination in every area.

Kelly Scanlon: Well, Pete, thank you to you and Debbie for taking that chance and for, uh, you know, Uh, opening the rabbit hole for sticking with it and, and bringing us this, this gem to Kansas City and, and really to people all around, but probably eventually the world. I mean, is it already the world? It's already the world.

No, I don't know. To, to, to, to Kansas City and, and really to the world. Uh, and I know how busy you are, like I said at the beginning, cause you are still just, you have a full plate. So thanks for coming and sharing with us on Banking on KC.

Pete Cowdin: Uh, my pleasure. Thanks Kelly.

Joe Close: This is Joe Close. Thanks President of Country Club Bank, thank you to Pete Cowden for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Pete and his wife Deb Pettid exemplify what can be accomplished through determination, passion, and a strong vision. Despite numerous challenges, the Rabbit Hole has launched as a groundbreaking museum in North Kansas City.

That brings children's literature to life through immersive, interactive experiences. Pete and Deb are not only fostering love for reading, but also putting Kansas City in the national spotlight as a hub of innovation and culture. Additionally, the Rabbit Hole is making a significant impact by employing full time artists and fabricators, showcasing the incredible talent in our city.

Country Club Bank is proud to support endeavors that bring national recognition to Kansas City and contribute to its vibrant, artistic spirit. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City, Country Club Bank, member FDIC.