"In small proportions we just beauties see; and in short measure life may perfect be." -- Ben Johnson, 17th century poet
William Shakespeare's contemporary and sometimes-rival, Ben Johnson, was not talking about miniature rooms in this poem fragment, but he captures the reason why some of us have loved miniatures since childhood — there is a perception about a tiny space that all is well, under control, idyllic even.
Realistic tiny rooms and buildings replicate the real, yet they are not real, offering the comfort and sense of possibility that the world of pretend has always offered those who enter its portals, young or old.
Miniatures and miniature rooms and environments have existed for thousands of years, according to John Mack's 2007 book, "The Art of Small Things." They were created by emperors in Rome and China, and, more recently, in the 19th century by furniture makers and architects to entice clients and increase sales.
Museums also have used them to illustrate different eras of history. The Chicago History Museum's dioramas are excellent examples, the best of which is its depiction of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. One can almost hear fire bells clanging and people screaming.
And Chicago's Field Museum has fascinated generations of kids with its miniature rooms showing life in ancient Egypt, including the embalming process of preparing the dead for the journey to their new life in the beyond.
So, whether you are 9 or 90, and already love miniatures or are eager to discover their appeal, this season offers the perfect opportunity to experience big pleasure in small things, from Carmel, Indiana, to Glencoe, Illinois.
Museum of Miniature Houses, 111 E. Main St., Carmel, Indiana — Farther afield but with a local connection, this charming little museum, created by three Indiana artisans to preserve and display miniatures and antique dollhouses, features the work of award-winning artist, Linda Farris, who grew up in Hammond and now lives in Muncie. Her work is part of a special exhibit on view through the end of December called, "Hoosiers Making Miniatures" Bicentennial Exhibit.
Farris' scenes include "Phantom of the Opera — Christine's Dressing Room," which won a $1,000 prize at the 2013 South Shore Arts Salon juried competition in Munster, and the whimsical "Dolls' and Dragons' Toy Shop." A graduate of Ball State University, Farris has been a miniature artisan since the mid-1970s.
"I have sold my miniatures and taught classes at shows through NAME (National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts) ever since then. I also belong to NAME's Academy of Honor," Farris said via email.
"One of my favorite things is to create scenes from shows that I fell in love with. 'Phantom of the Opera' has to be my favorite musical, which led to 'Christine's Dressing Room.' I'm obsessed with castles, maidens and dragons and even read books set in that time period. ... I have just finished Hogwarts Dining Hall and am always creating fantasy scenes including fairies."
The museum itself also is a treasure trove of tiny delights, featuring hundreds of quality miniature rooms, houses, scenes and individual pieces displayed on a rotating basis. More than 85,000 visitors from around the world have toured the museum since it opened in 1993, according to museum literature. Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for kids. FYI: (317) 575-9466; email@example.com; www.museumofminiatures.org.
The Thorne Miniature Rooms of the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago — Almost everyone has heard of the 68 rooms created and constructed between 1932 and 1940 by master craftsmen according to the specifications of Mrs. James Ward Thorne, of Chicago.
The 68 little room boxes offer a glimpse of European and American interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930s. Painstakingly constructed on a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot, these fascinating models with their fulsome collections of furnishings, down to photo frames on side tables and utensils on set dining tables, captivate both kids and adults with their exquisite beauty; and their diminutive size inspires the imagination in a way full-sized rooms never could. A raised step that snakes all around the exhibit encourages little ones to go deep in their viewing, too.
As it has done for the past several years, the museum has decorated several Thorne Rooms with holiday decor through Jan. 8. But don't expect elaborately trimmed trees and lush garlands. In keeping with its high standards and commitment to displaying the rooms true to their designated eras, the museum has adorned certain rooms in keeping with the more restrained customs of earlier times. Still, the decorations are charming and worth a special visit.
Also, there will be several events associated with the Thorne Rooms during the holidays, including one on Dec. 15 featuring Marianne Malone, author of the children's book series, "The Sixty-Eight Rooms," which was inspired by the Art Institute's Thorne Miniature Rooms. She will discuss her writing process and inspiration with the Thorne Rooms' curator, Lindsay Mican Morgan. Cost: $25 adults, $19 seniors, students and kids; fast-pass admission $35, $29. FYI: www.artic.edu; (312) 443-3600.
Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago — Perhaps less well-known than the Thorne Rooms and much smaller by comparison, the Fairy Castle is no less enchanting. One can see the outside of the castle and its magical landscaping as well as inside the gorgeous rooms.
It is an actual little castle, replete with electricity and plumbing, an attic room rife with minuscule riches hidden away as if by a fairy pirate, a fairy princess' bedroom and elegant bath, and all the other grand rooms and cozy nooks one would expect tiny members of fairy royalty to inhabit, albeit on a petite scale.
The castle was silent film actress Colleen Moore's fairy dream home adapted to miniature proportions, created at her direction in the 1930s and made a permanent exhibit when it was donated to the MSI in 1949. Refurbished in 2013, the 9-square-foot castle features about 1,500 miniatures and cost nearly $500,000 when it was created, according to the MSI.
Some of its intricate treasures include original art from various artists, the tiniest Bible ever written, dating back to 1840, as well as a library of other tiny volumes signed by famous authors such as John Steinbeck and Agatha Christie, and tapestries created by a master needleworker from Vienna.
Side note: As long as you're there, check out the huge and elaborate model railroad on the main floor that runs all day, every day. A unique section is a replica scale model of Chicago and its imposing skyscrapers as well as the Chicago river. Cost: $18 for adults, $11 for kids, or packages of multiple exhibits run $30 to $54 for adults, $20 to $38 for kids. FYI: www.msichicago.org; (773) 684-1414.
Miniature railroad at the Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake-Cook Road, Glencoe, Illinois — Speaking of model railroads, families will be drawn to the holiday version of the regular outdoor railroad that is open through Oct. 29 (and well worth a separate visit come spring).
The Wonderland Express is located indoors in a greenhouse that features a model train wending its way around small models of Chicago landmarks, as well as caroling, movie weekends, holiday markets featuring hand-made wreaths, hot chocolate, ice carving, and magical glittering indoor snow.
While the indoor winter version of the railroad is much smaller than the bigger, outdoor one, it's great fun and charming, and there are other activities going on to make the visit worth the trek so far north. Through Jan. 2. Cost: $13 for adults, $10 for seniors and kids, plus $25 for parking $30 for vans. FYI: www.chicagobotanic.org; (847) 835-5440.