Thursday, 14 January 2016

A “LITTLE” INTEREST OF MINE

CONSERVATION TIPS & TRICKS

BY: NIKITA JOHNSTON

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For the last few years, I have had the great joy to be able to use my conservation training while working at my local museum and archives. For the most part my projects have involved regular everyday objects that were used and continue to be used in day-to-day life, such as cookware, silverware, dishes, tools and household textiles. I have even had the opportunity to work with some very large pieces, such as a horse drawn hearse, a brougham, a jail cell, and large agricultural equipment such as threshers.

Yet, some of my most memorable projects, that not only challenged me, but were a joy to work on have involved miniatures. Whether they be children’s toys, personal items, or models made for display, miniatures present their own unique challenges, not the least of which is their smallness. For the most part I think my fascination stems from the enchantment inherent in miniatures, and their ability to allow us to be giants for a day, much like Gulliver and his adventures in Lilliput.

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The world of miniatures is ironically large and very diverse. At some point many of us may find miniatures in our own collections, whether they be model ships, doll houses, miniature displays used in shops, miniature portraits, or miniature books. I was lucky enough to visit the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) last year and the Thorne Miniature Rooms, which include 68 exhaustively detailed interiors from Europe and America from the 13th century to the 1930s.

English Drawing Room of the Victorian Period, 1840-70, c. 1937
Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Art Institute of Chicago
French Dining Room of the Louis XIV Period, 1660-1700, c. 1937
Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Art Institute of Chicago
Shaker Living Room, c. 1800, c. 1940
Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Art Institute of Chicago
Staff at the AIC take the display of these miniature rooms further, even dressing them for the holiday season.


Staff dress the California Hallway, c. 1940, with a miniature menorah,
and hang mistletoe in the Virginia Entrance Hall, 1751–55.
Mrs. James Ward Thorne, Art Institute of Chicago
The AIC has developed a rather unique interactive experience for viewers to explore the rooms from the comfort of their own homes. Through their Game of Thornes: A Maze of Miniature Proportions, visitors to the AIC website are challenged to navigate their escape through an online maze of the rooms connected by means of doorways and other less obvious secret passages. The game not only let’s visitors explore the rooms from a distance, but experience the high level of detail and craftsmanship put into each one-of-a-kind model.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago recently completed a 9-month conservation of its own famous miniature, known as Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle. Spanning nine square feet and holding 1,500 artifacts when completely assembled, Moore’s Fairy Castle is a museum in itself. The Castle was also built with a plumbing and electrical system. Not only do the chandeliers light but the bathtubs have real running water, posing even more conservation challenges to the piece.

Colleen Moore's Fairy Tale Castle
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

The 9-month project took five conservators working six to seven days a week to complete, with a paper conservator focusing specifically on cleaning and stabilizing 50 real miniature books, including the smallest bible ever written. A time-lapse video developed by the museum shows the conservation team reassembling the castle.


In contradiction to their size, miniatures present rather large challenges to those who have been entrusted with their care. With the potential for mixed media, combined with being very small and delicate, and having large number of components, miniatures such as those featured here, in terms of their care and management present a sizeable task for any conservator or collections manager.

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