On my first visit, I almost missed them. Tucked downstairs, beneath the main staircase, out of the way of the crowds, I stumbled upon an assortment of tiny creations. Playful, charming, interesting, evocative, fun, and, some even say, “cute.” “They are the most powerful form of educational cuteness there is,” their caretaker laughs.
In the 1930’s, Chicago artist Mrs. James Ward Thorne, and her team of exacting artisans, constructed tiny, dollhouse-like rooms depicting historic American and European home interiors. Of the ninety-nine she created, Mrs. Thorne gifted sixty-eight of these miniature rooms to the Art Institute of Chicago, one of our country’s largest art museums.
Art Institute of Chicago
Lindsay Mican Morgan is the lucky guardian of the Thorne Miniature Rooms, a beloved and popular Chicago institution. “Because of them being miniature, a special feeling just happens – an awareness not occurring when you look at full scale objects,” reflects Lindsay. “If you walk into a period room at a museum, it can be intimidating. But when you miniaturize it, your imagination takes over, and it becomes about play,” she continues.
As Lindsay and I walk through the Thorne Rooms gallery, I peer into the wood-trimmed, glass cases containing precise replicas of taverns and parlors and dining rooms from the last few hundred years. Pointing out the floor coverings, window treatments, and light fixtures “of the day,” Lindsay is excited for me to appreciate all the meticulous details.
Oohing and ahhing over the California Hallway, depicting west-coast life in 1940, I notice bronze sculptures and stamp-sized paintings in the room. Lindsay, an architecture fanatic, emphasizes these pieces of miniature art are not replicas – they are truly one of a kind.
Mrs. Thorne hired the actual artists, sculptors, textile firms, wallpaper companies, and artisans – those famous in her era – to furnish her miniature rooms. Admiring the floral bronze intertwining gates on her family crypt, Mrs. Thorne commissioned the same expert to do the metal work for her Gothic Church miniature room.
English Roman Catholic Church in the Gothic Style
“The costs to produce the same types of rooms in this day and age would be exorbitant,” Lindsay adds. Mrs. Thorne created her rooms during the Great Depression. Although she paid generous wages, these artists would probably not have worked elsewhere at the time.
Each room is more enchanting than the last. The Tennessee Entrance Hall, circa 1835, with its grand carved staircase, detailed wallpaper, and ornate rugs. The French Library with the lights of the Eiffel Tower shining just outside the window. The French Salon of the Louis XI period with the gilded frames and wall sconces and trim. The English Library in the Queen Anne period, early 1700’s, and the tiny books arranged precisely on shelves.
Tennessee Entrance Hall
Like Lindsay, I love all the wee knickknacks – the cut crystal dishes filled with nuts and candies in the period dining rooms, the pots and pans in the colonial kitchens. “All the items are free standing,” Lindsay tells me. “Nothing is clumped or glued together. Everything is laid out in its natural state.”
French Library of the Modern Period
From cleaning the rooms with sable hair brushes to writing the display descriptions to giving lectures for public and private programs, Lindsay’s is a one-woman show. And she loves it that way. “I get to work with people in every part of the museum and coordinate all sorts of public and private programs. I could never be bored,” the miniature enthusiast smiles.
Originally from Utah, Lindsay was a grad student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when the opportunity came knocking. Her “strange combination of skills – theory, art history, the fine motor skills of an artist, some miniaturization work – were seemingly perfect for the Thorne Rooms.”
New Mexico Dining Room
One of Lindsay’s busiest – and most fun – times during the year is preparing rooms for the holidays. And she begins well in advance – researching holiday traditions for particular eras, commissioning artists, and even making tiny floral arrangements and decorations (with archival materials) herself. Typically adding a room a year to the holiday exhibit, Lindsay must maintain the rooms’ impeccable standards.
Connecticut Valley Tavern Parlor
Her go-to person for creating miniature holiday sweets and cakes and jellies is a woman in Italy. Working from photos Lindsay provides, this miniature food specialist (Wouldn’t I love to talk with her?!) crafts little treats to display on tiered serving trays and crystal plates.
South Carolina Drawing Room
The mother of a toddler, Lindsay loves seeing people bring their children to the Art Institute. “But remember,” she cautions, “it becomes a chore if you try to see everything in one visit.” She recommends visitors “have an amazing time in two areas, and tell yourself you will be back again.” And I will certainly return to the Thorne Rooms – next time during the holidays.
Tags: Art Institute of Chicago, artist, Chicago, Lindsay Mican Morgan, museum, Thorne Miniature Rooms, Travel
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