The Chinese Traditional room was first exhibited in the late 1930s during a tumultuous time for many. Let’s find out what that landscape looked like.
1893- the World’s Columbian Exposition was an extensive fair celebrating the 400th year of Christopher Columbus’ arrival and marked the first world’s exposition in the United States. Chicago hosts the world’s “best” advances in technology, discovery, and art. It was also a cultural milestone for the city, reaching official city-status only some 50 years before. Transforming from bog to “city of the century” during this momentous event, Chicago turned to bolstering its industry and arts investments in preparation for the fair. These included the City Beautiful movement, developing Chicago’s park system as well as building classical architecture structures to house art collections (the Art Institute of Chicago), scientific inquiries (the Museum of Science and Industry), and archeological discoveries (the Field Museum).
1911 – the Chinese Revolution effectively ended 2,132 years of dynastic rule and, upon the revolutionaries’ victory, transformed China into a republic. Suddenly, the revolution’s leaders were in charge of advancing the country to more equality and support of its citizens socially, culturally, and politically. Despite the major moment of change, many “Western” cultures continued to view China and Asian people as backward and inferior–an image cultivated to support Westerners’ anxieties about race and nationalistic sovereignty.
1914 – World War I devastated Europe physically, economically, and morally. Because of constant usage of trench warfare and the money spent for the duration of four year combat, famous architecture, furniture, and art in general was destroyed. Objects that emerged from the war undamaged were too costly to properly care for them. Because of this, salvaging European art and architectural styles (in many cases, full rooms or building façades) motivated hundreds of American art museums and art collectors. The effects of WWI hover behind Thorne’s project if they were not intentionally included–not only could Thorne bring European decorative styles to Americans who weren’t able to travel beyond the states, but she could also maintain a version of Europe, one of lavish arts and culture, that was disappearing.
1929 – the Great Depression plunges the globe into economic depression, leaving millions unemployed and displaced. Although many furniture makers were out of jobs, they turned to producing miniatures, which were less expensive to produce and more affordable for consumers. Mrs. Thorne requested lots of the pieces for her miniature rooms from craftsmen like them.
1932 – Mrs. Thorne crafts the first set of miniature rooms for the Chicago Historical Society
1933 – Century of Progress World’s Fair placed Mrs. Thorne in the center of the arts world with her American miniature rooms exhibited at Chicago’s second world’s fair. It was said to be a highlight for many visitors.
1939 – World War II is known for paving the way for greater social mobility for racial and gendered minorities because of the shear scope the war demanded. Specifically for Chicago, the conflict years and aftermath marked the repeal of Chinese exclusion acts (first introduced in 1882 with the first wave of Chinese immigration on the West Coast). One nullified clause that only allowed men entry (and women who could list a father or husband guardian already situated in the States) finally allowed families to reunite. Although the law now established an immigration quota, Asian immigrants endured major racism and discrimination in the highly segregated Chicago.
1937-40 – Mrs. Thorne creates a set of 37 American rooms and presents them to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1940. The Phoenix Art Museum, Knoxville Museum of Art, and IBM Corps also receive a significant number of miniature rooms.
1950 – the Art Institute of Chicago displays Mrs. Thorne’s rooms permanently.
1962 – the Art Institute of Chicago acquires the Chinese and Japanese Traditional interiors.
Mrs. Narcissa Niblack Thorne
Mrs. Thorne was born in Vincennes, Indiana on May 2, 1882. Her love for miniatures began at a young age when her uncle sent her small souvenirs from his travels all around the world. Growing up, she received the typical education for late 19th century girls–etiquette and how to navigate the social world. As an adult, she wished to have learned more and embarked on crafting miniature rooms and dioramas as a way to access the type of education she wished she had gotten as a girl. As she traveled with her husband, who was also very handy with woodworking and helped his wife craft some of the structural foundations of the rooms, and researched interior design and theatrical display, she developed her very original, creative, and astounding rooms. At first, she made them for friends and charity auctions, but the project became more wide scale for the public with a long lasting legacy all the way to the present.