Little Art, Big Detail

Tucson's Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures celebrates its third birthday

The Art Institute of Chicago is a glorious treasure house of world art, teeming with Egyptian mummies and Renaissance sculptures, Roy Lichtenstein cartoon paintings and Georges Seurat's famous A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

Even so, one of its most-popular exhibits is the Thorne Miniature Rooms in the basement, a collection of 68 pint-sized historical dioramas, furnished with exquisite scale-model furniture. More than half of the rooms were crafted by the late Eugene Kupjack, a superstar of the miniature world.

It turns out that Tucson has two Kupjack creations of a quality to rival those at the Art Institute. Who knew? A Kupjack Georgian dining room and a re-creation of an 18th-century silversmith's shop are among the most-prized objects at Tucson's curiously named Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures.

Tourists and Tucson schoolchildren flock to inspect Kupjack's shop, gleaming with tiny silver coffeepots and bowls, and candlesticks the size of a fingernail. Teensy carved chairs with red, tufted seats surround the long table in his dining room, and a miniature rose-colored Oriental rug adorns its wooden floor.

The museum celebrates its third birthday this weekend. Despite its focus on the small, the place and the collection are big. The modernist building, designed by Swaim Associates Architects, is a labyrinth of curving rooms, running to nearly 16,000 square feet. The collection of miniatures—mostly, but not entirely, small houses—approaches 275 objects. (Pieces amassed by founders Pat and Walter Arnell form the bulk of the nonprofit museum's holdings.)

There's a fun children's fantasy wing, featuring a North Pole with elves cavorting in snow, and a magic tree inhabited by mice in Victorian costumes. A "world gallery" has real-life Thai spirit houses, children's dollhouses and some contemporary miniatures that unfortunately go overboard in their celebration of conspicuous consumption.

But the museum also has a serious purpose. It gets its confusing name, the Mini Time Machine, from the idea that historical objects—and modern replicas of historical architecture—can take visitors back in time, and around the world. Inadvertently, perhaps, visitors learn about changes in material culture and architecture, and about class and gender divides.

The oldest work in the history gallery is a dark, rough-hewn toy kitchen, crafted in Nuremberg, Germany, around 1742. Miniature kitchens were popular playthings, but they also were used to teach little girls about their future duties. Made of plain wood, this one has none of the refinement of a Kupjack creation, but it's charming in its own way.

Itsy-bitsy copper pots are set upon the teensy-weensy shelves; toy pastries rest on a table; and leaded glass windows let in light at either end of the room. The stove has a flue for venting smoke to the outdoors—giving us some idea of the level of technology in an ordinary kitchen in the mid-18th century. And the costumes of the two dolls—the mistress is in a velvet dress, with the servant in an apron—speak to a social divide. This upstairs-downstairs theme was to become a staple of house miniatures in later centuries.

The English Daneway House from 1775 is a so-called "baby house" or "cabinet house," a plaything for wealthy adults meant to be opened up and shown off at dinner parties. The house itself is not too scale; it's simply a backdrop for the prized miniatures inside. In the salon, a quartet of musicians are bent over their instruments, and in the library, tiny volumes of Shakespeare flank a marble fireplace. According to the museum's Gentry Spronken, if you had strong eyes and a good magnifying glass, you could read the Bard's complete works on the tiny pages.

Later examples are more faithful to architecture. Around 1880, John Bellamy made a careful reproduction of his own home in Newton, Mass.—a classic New England white clapboard, graced with porches and multiple wings. Inside, a nursery and a grandparents' chamber reflect a societal ideal of sheltering multiple generations under one roof. A telescope, perhaps representing Bellamy's own scientific interests, gets a place of honor.

More recently, in 1989, craftspeople Pat and Noel Thomas made an accurate miniature of the famed Gamble House, built in Pasadena by architects Greene and Greene at the turn of the last century. The pride of Pasadena's architectural historic district, the Gamble house is here in all its woody splendor.

By contrast, some miniaturists are intent on lionizing wealth and vulgarity, rather than fine design. Brooke Tucker's "Yellow Rose of Texas" is an ode to the McMansion, and Charlotte Schoenbach's "Chateau Meno," all tapestries and gilt, is an homage to Versailles and the days of "let them eat cake."

It's hard not to look at "Lagniappe," the fantasy showpiece by Madelyn Cook in the front lobby, and not think of The Queen of Versailles, Lauren Greenfield's brilliant new documentary about the would-be biggest house in America—and the burdens of consumption. The billionaire owners of this new-world Versailles are determined to use their riches to fill their new palace with as much stuff as possible.

Likewise, Cook's imaginary owners of Lagniappe, a Tidewater, Virginia, plantation house, have searched the world for silks and furniture and paintings and silver. Cook pictures her merchant owner sailing the seven seas to buy what each room needs, like the satin bedspread on the four-poster in the bedroom, stitched with a golden royal crest, and the blue-velvet curtains.

Sure, this is all in fun, and Cook has meticulously researched and re-created all these historical objects. Still, this is upstairs-downstairs with a vengeance. The black nanny in the front hallway tending to the white master's children bears silent witness to the source of all this wealth: the unpaid labor of slaves.

Why is it that most miniaturists seem to want to create only mansions? Few, it seems, care to duplicate the dwellings of the poor or the architecture that most of us live in. So it's a relief to come across a set of Welsh quarrymen's cottages, re-created in a model by Brian Long in 2001.

The so-called Unicorn Cottages were designed by a Lord Newborough in 1810 to efficiently—and humanely—house men who spent their lives smashing rock. A single square building was cleverly divided into four two-story homes. Each had its own fireplace and chimney, and all four stacks were in the center of the building, helping to keep the heat inside. The architect paid attention to privacy, too, giving each house a separate front door, and locating each one on a different outside wall.

On the other side of the globe, Shoichi Uchiyama created a small replica of the traditional thatched farmhouses that once peppered the countryside north of Tokyo. These worker houses were big enough to house the elderly along with the young, again reflecting an important cultural value. They were wood below, and thatch above, and Uchiyama followed the old techniques in crafting his miniature, using wood, mud and straw gleaned from the local soil.

The house's natural aesthetic is a welcome antidote to the more-is-more mantra. The thatch roofs were enormous, sloping organic affairs that rose and swelled likes waves in the sea. Flowers and plants used to sprout in the rooftop soil, and one 19th-century traveler poetically praised them as "gardens in the air"—architecture as aligned with nature as it's possible to be.