In the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago they have the Thorne Miniature Rooms. I discovered this on my third or fourth trip there, having made one of those random turns you find yourself doing in really big museums. I don’t remember how I got down there the first time, but the actual entrance is just past the main desk and down the steps.
I lost two hours down there the first time I saw them. They’re amazing. 68 tiny rooms, the largest, a church interior, only as high as my shoulders. Most of them are the size of a microwave. All of them are incredibly detailed, with minute carvings on the furniture, postage stamp-sized portraits on the wall, tiny molding on walls and ceiling, little lighting and (my favorite) doors that lead into other rooms that you only get a glimpse of. They are so realistic and detailed that if you Google Image ‘Thorne Miniature Rooms,’ they look like regular-sized rooms.
The Thorne Miniature Rooms were not the start of a long love affair with tiny rooms, they are merely the most memorable link in the chain. I never had a dollhouse as a child, but I always wanted one. I remember stopping in a dollhouse shop with my family when I was a little girl – yes, a shop that sold nothing but dollhouses and dollhouse parts. I made my own out of bookshelves when I got a little older and they looked a bit like something the Borrowers would have set up, with furniture of bottles and seashells and matchboxes. Since then I’ve discovered the Thorne Rooms in Chicago; the dollhouses of Petronella Oortman and Petronella Dunois and the Collector’s Cabinet in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; and the fairy rooms in Ann Arbor, which are tiny rooms built into the walls of different shops that can very easily go unnoticed, since they’re at calf level on most adults. When I was tasked with a college assignment to visualize a song into a box, I put “They Might be Giants” by They Might be Giants into a ring box. (This is because, though I do like tiny rooms, I also like irony.) And, yes, I was a big fan of Polly Pocket. Not the new ones – the ones that were actually pocket sized.
Why I’m so excited by these things I’m a little vague on, but I suspect it’s because I’m not very tall (5’4″) or at least not very all in comparison to a lot of people around me (many of whom are 5’9″ or taller) and, after the aggravation of having my head used as an armrest, people storing things on the top shelf and grinning when I get out a step stool, I like having something smaller than me. There’s also something satisfying about a miniature room – like having a complete set all neat and tidy in its own little box.
And I like to imagine, if I was even smaller and could step inside those miniature rooms, what I would find in the painted garden or behind the door that is only cracked.