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Miniature Museums pt. 2: The Art Institute of Chicago

Ahh…Its finally August, which means you’ve probably got some time off. This would be the perfect time to have a picnic, go to the beach, or visit an amusement park—if it weren’t so terribly HOT outside!

Better to save the outdoors for Labor Day when the weather is (hopefully) a bit more cooperative and make your way to the air-conditioned halls of a museum instead. We suggest the Thorne Miniature Rooms Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is both the second featured destination in our Miniatures Museum Series and one of the oldest, largest and most well-known miniatures exhibits in the world.

The Thorne rooms are named for their creator, the renowned miniature artisan, Narcissa Niblack Thorne. The story of how Thorne was initially introduced to miniatures is somewhat unclear—one of the more popular theories suggests that Thorne began to collect miniature pieces during her travels to Europe and Asia in her early adult life.

Another theory proposes that her interest was first fostered during childhood by an uncle, a Naval Rear Admiral, who was said to have sent her miniature pieces from around the world.

Though neither of these stories has been officially confirmed, what is clear is that by the early 1930s Thorne had begun to receive much notoriety for her roomboxes and shadowboxes, which started to appear in museums and galleries around the world.

Approximately 100 Thorne rooms are known to exist. The painstakingly detailed, 1:12 scaled rooms replicate the interiors of upper-middle class homes from years ranging from the late 13th century until the 1940s. While many of the rooms replicate designs popular in England, France and the US, a few of the rooms are reflective of her travels in other parts of the world.

Despite the popularity of her work, Thorne never received any payment for the pieces, and donated them to museums and charity in her later years. In 1954, the majority of these works (68 of them to be exact) were put into a permanent, large gallery in the Art Institute of Chicago, where they can still be seen today. The gallery encompasses the entirety of the first floor of the museum and continues to be one of the most popular exhibits in the museum, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

The Art Institute of Chicago is located at 111 S. Michigan Ave. and is open to the public daily from 10:30am – 5:00 pm. Additionally, the museum stays open until 8pm on Thursdays, and admission is free for Illinois residents between 5 and 8pm. Check out the museum’s website for more information.

And if you really just CAN’T make it to Chicago? Well, the museum does offer an online tour of part of the collection on their website—you can check it out here—but be forewarned that there’s no true substitute for the real thing!

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