Art Institute of Chicago
Descending the staircase towards the lower level of the Art Institute of Chicago to what was formerly the children’s education department, the ceiling height is noticeably scaled down. The imposing grandeur architecture visitors are confronted with when arriving from the street vanishes as you go down the stairs to a much more intimate setting.
Entering the Thorne Miniature Room, I was instantly struck with amazement by the sheer number of miniature rooms in the collection. As I began my journey along the outer ring of European models, the precise detail in everything from the crown moldings to the silk rugs and head busts on the mantels were awe-inspiring. I even overheard another visitor whisper, “You can almost hear the music playing!” There was so much detail within each pieces, nothing was lost by the absence of individual wall labels. The only information given was the country and the time period it captured.
The English Roman Catholic Church modeled from the late 13th century is the first to greet you in the Thorne Miniature Room gallery. A diagram of the exhibition layout with the remaining 67 miniature rooms, whose fragmented circulation resembles the arching shape that frames the Catholic Church model, is posted adjacent to the model.
By grouping several miniature rooms on each wall segment, the intimacy of viewing is maintained. The arching circulation allows for the rooms to keep unfolding along the path with new rooms to discover around the corners, informing a different ritual procession.
The gallery also features a small platform that lines the walls and is raised a foot off of the ground. It is accompanied by a railing between the platform and the miniatures on view.
Both serve two very different purposes. The more apparent would be the utility of accessibility to children. The platform also provides a level of accessibility to adults by allowing them to kneel for viewing at eye level with the railing is additional support. These two however, may ironically be used as a separation device. For those not as bold to step up, the platform and railing create a buffer zone between the models and viewers.
Though an intimate viewing of the miniature rooms is created, the glass protecting the models from the viewer create a very distinct break. The formality of the glass and its ability to separate the rooms from the viewer are magnified with the lighting that is not shy to show viewers’ reflections. It was impossible to take a picture of a model that wasn’t from an obscure angle in order to avoid my reflection as well as those of others and as a result, made me aware that though I was looking for a relationship with one of the rooms, the room was not reciprocal. The glass and platform separating the viewer from the model demonstrates the power of authority implied by the institution.
What makes this exhibition unique is that it is complete. All of Mrs. Thorne’s miniature rooms are contained in this gallery and may be seen at the same time. The impact of the collection is greater in volume. More importantly, this exhibition is part of the permanent collection on display. Rarely will there be a show with the complete works of an artist(s) that is not a special engagement.
Yet out of 68 models, only two were not of European or American scenes. The “Traditional Chinese” and “Traditional Japanese” models were segregated to the end of the displays and of note, in less detail. Before this exhibition, I wasn’t aware “traditional” was a period in history.
The lack of detail in the Chinese and Japanese miniatures in addition to the complete lack of other cultures, could be understood in the sense that Mrs. Thorne was not exposed to them. The inclusion of only one miniature room of an interior of a Frank Lloyd Wright home in Chicago that was not completed by Mrs. Thorne does pose the question as to why other miniatures depicting different cultures are not represented.
Politics aside, the Thorne Miniature Rooms gallery contains small glimpses of wonderment in each model. The craftsmanship alone is remarkable at the scale and enough to leave the viewer in amazement. The exhibition design is fitting for the objects as well as the institution that houses them.
*This was originally posted on September 18, 2014.*