In the depths of the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago is a carpeted room with windows into 68 gorgeously decorated rooms—each built to the scale of 1 inch: 1 foot.
The rooms were a project by Narcissa Nidblack Thorne, who married the heir to a department store fortune. As a child, she’d always loved dolls and dollhouses; as an adult who traveled extensively through Europe, she made it a hobby to collect miniature furniture and accessories.
To house her collection, Narcissa drew designs for several rooms to hold her treasures, and commissioned cabinetmakers to construct them. It was 1932, and unemployed craftsmen were plentiful. Over time, though, the project became increasingly ambitious. In 1936 she was asked to create a miniature version of the library at Windsor Castle to mark the (ill-fated) coronation of Edward VIII. Inspired to create more facsimiles of real rooms from some of Europe’s most impressive castles, museums, and homes, she hired architects and members of the Needlework Guild of Chicago to get the designs just right, down to the tiny textiles and carpets.
The Thorne Miniature Rooms are beautiful examples of painstaking craftsmanship, and of architecture and interior decoration from specific places and periods. Visiting the Thorne Miniature Rooms Exhibition allows museum-goers period-accurate glimpses into European and American interiors from the late 13th century all the way through the 1940s, in a way that logistics like time and space wouldn’t otherwise allow. They were featured at exhibitions and art museums throughout the United States before finally settling at the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago. (Three more are in the collection of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the Kaye Miniature Museum in Los Angeles, and the Phoenix Art Museum, and nine can be found in the Knoxville Museum of Art in Tennessee.) The collection at MAIC, though, is thought to be the largest collection of miniature rooms in the world.
But, like any rooms, Thorne’s creations get dirty and require maintenance. The skilled team of Art Institute staff members tasked with cleaning the miniature rooms aren’t little elves or regular-sized humans wielding feather dusters and vacuum cleaners scaled to size. Rather, these extremely gentle humans come armed with cotton swabs and eye droppers, attacking the works with a degree of pride and skill necessary when maintaining impossibly small handmade time machines.
Know Before You Go
MAIC is open daily 10:30–5:00, and on Thursdays until 8:00, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.