Let’s take a deeper look at the Chinese Traditional room’s thematic perspectives.
One of the most striking elements of all Mrs. Thorne’s Miniature Rooms is the size and, through it, the intricate detail achieved. Scaled at 1 in: 1 foot, the displays mounted in the wall look like large, office file boxes. In this way, the furniture and decorative objects are smaller than those of today’s doll furniture, which makes the handmade crafting the more astonishing. Both the rooms’ size and artistry contribute to the mystical world us viewers yearn to enter, a phenomenon many of us first experienced through the wonder of Tchaikovsky’s the Nutcracker (1982) where a 5–7-foot Christmas Tree grows to 20-something feet and an inanimate Nutcracker springs to life to fight an abnormally gigantic rat King (or does the ballet’s protagonist Clara shrink?). Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) also play with the idea of scale and whimsical transportation through mundane objects. Specifically, the latter story captures a kind of transportation that we imagine in front of Mrs. Thorne’s rooms—through a reflective glass, be it a mirror like Alice’s or the gallery glass in front of each of the Thorne Rooms’. Correspondingly, the miniature world that stands at a fluid in between of the real and fantastical and, consequently, a crossroads of accessible and inaccessible. Through this theoretical lens, we may understand the Rooms’ magic, both how and why these rooms command our attention so effectively and enchantingly.
Miniatures emphasize a highly sensory experience for our eyes where, quite appropriately for the nature of Mrs. Thorne’s exhibition, the objects and design take over the spotlight. Evidently in the Chinese Traditional and any miniatures materialize as eye candy—visually exhilarating and at times overwhelming. Moreover, the small “stage” size increases objects’ proximities, asking the eye to take in more than what we expect to see in a full-size room. And because Mrs. Thorne’s miniatures feature decorative interiors made from the best quality and, in many instances, by professional furniture-makers and architects, the spaces feel incredibly realistic. In pictures and up close, Mrs. Thorne’s miniature rooms look life sized. But in the gallery, as stooping adults squint and wide-eyed children hop up on the step in front of each room, reality returns. That familiarity allows us to connect with the objects, their arrangement, and overall construction in a similar way we navigate our own world. In this way, cultural context informs our comprehension of miniatures. Those contexts that we hold so dear allow us more accessibility to the space rather than a completely foreign, scary experience. It also means we carry our positionalities—our identity signifiers—on the journey like our fascinations and enthusiasm as well as our anxieties and judgement.
As a result, the transformation between reality and fantasy, the big world and the miniature, is complicated. Despite a focus on the objects in the space, the understanding of the room as fantastical to some extent we, as scholar Susan Stewart who explores the wonders of the miniature argues, pass over the labor used to craft the room. And what of the culture Mrs. Thorne attempts to represent in the space? The spaces display the cultural understandings Mrs. Thorne herself comprehended. If we think of the rooms as a portal into the miniature realm, the room’s creator, Mrs. Thorne, also constructs the travel route. We travel the channels Mrs. Thorne outlines for us within our minds but never cross through the exhibition glass that actually reflects our own faces. In a way, our own passing into the fantastical world deconstructs the very world we run toward as beings from the real would change the construction of the fantasy.
Another important component to understanding the Thorne Rooms is through the lens of nostalgia contextualized during the decades of the Rooms’ debuted—the 1930s and 40s. Historically, major events forever changed the world during those specific decades. The Great Depression of 1929, the World Wars (I: 1914, II: 1939) demolished and restored world political and economic relations. Europe and its luxurious artistic social scene crumbled, making Mrs. Thorne’s inspirational grand castles, chateaus, country estate houses, and fashionable European hotels inaccessible. In terms of the Chinese Traditional room context, the 1911 Chinese revolution turned China into a republic, ending 2,132 years of dynastic rule. Moreover, the world experiences a colossal wave of modernization in the early 20th century both in production (paving the way for a massive consumerist and disposable lifestyle) and the arts such as the rise of film and America’s Hollywood. When Mrs. Thorne first exhibited her rooms at various World Fairs (the 1933 Century of Progress Chicago World’s Fair showcased the American miniature rooms; the 1940 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco exhibited the Chinese Traditional Room; Mrs. Thorne gave the European rooms to the Art Institute of Chicago for permanent display in 1940), the rapidly changing world felt the loss of history (and decorative styles) more than the modern visitor might. The rooms’ huge success speaks to the world’s need for familiar, nostalgic spaces.
The “Othered” Space
Lastly, we must recognize the phenomenon of the “Othered” Space, especially when thinking about the more problematic sides of the miniature and nostalgia. Scholars explain “the Other” as an “Us vs. Them” binary where we construct the definition of ourselves through the opposites of the “other.” Often, we exploit the power dynamic so that the “Us” becomes superior and, by definition, the “other” is inferior. Similarly to the previous themes intersected with cultural understanding, this one does too. As we bring our cultural background into the interactivity, our understanding of this survey of 68 rooms across different time periods and geographical locations picks out the two non-European and non-American spaces as “Other.” We see the ribbed, pagoda-like roof, geometric lattice woodwork, and an Asian-robed man that directs the narrative to a specific conclusion. For some who read the label first, “Chinese Interior, Traditional,” we conclude China’s “traditional,” archaic state. Interestingly, with the Chinese revolution still present in the back of people’s minds, Mrs. Thorne still chose to depict a “traditional,” imperial structure. Did Mrs. Thorne have a specific political agenda when crafting this room or was she as captivated by imperial decorative styles as with European ones? The Art Institute’s exhibition catalogue insinuates that the Asian interiors, the Chinese and Japanese ones, seem like an “afterthought” to the rest of the collection and when viewing the countless presumably Chinese and Japanese traded goods and influenced decorative objects in every other room, it’s hard not to come to that conclusion. Reader, what do you think? Click on the “Engage” tab to take part in the discussion.