It is true one of my favorite places in the world is the Art Institute of Chicago, but I can be even more precise by choosing one of the museum’s particularly attractive corners—in which case I immediately zero in on the Thorne Miniature Rooms. Located in the basement, next to the photography and the charmingly odd glass paperweight collection, the Thorne Rooms are more or less what they sound like, a series of tiny rooms, furnished and decorated in historically accurate miniature detail. There are sixty-eight of them, representing several different eras from several different countries, set individually into the wall with their fourth walls panes of glass, an invitation for us to come along and peer inside.
I have always been fascinated by miniatures, for no readily apparent reason. Perhaps I don’t need one, because it seems to be a common human impulse. The Thorne Rooms aisles are usually crowded, full of both children and adults looking through the windows into new, tiny worlds. There is the chief draw, maybe. The Thorne Rooms have not just the exquisite detail of their settings, but touches of human life that makes it seem as if you are seeing not a static, shruken reproduction but, somehow, a real world. Through open doorways you can see glimpses of other rooms, staircases, gardens, landscapes, cityscapes. As if they have a voice to confidently state, we are not just on display for you—we have our own rooms and halls and paths you can’t see. You are allowed to peek, that’s all. Many of the rooms appear as if their inhabitants have just left the room and are apt to wander back in at any moment. Sewing scissors on a workspace, embroidery half-completed. Plates set for dinner. Sheet music ready to be played. Cards dealt out on the table. Dolls and toys left on the kitchen floor. You see not just a place in miniature but a moment. And, despite the range of locations and times presented—from Tudor England to revolutionary France to colonial America to traditional Japan—the moments, stilled in perspective, all seem identically human.
It’s a small, concrete sort of art. It’s not about blatant style or statement. Just people. Crowded around a glass looking into a room, to see past their reflections and discover what’s on the other side.