Peep through the windows of historic mansions, modernist villas and modest family homes to find miniature worlds, recreated in perfect, diminutive detail, writes ROWAN MANTELL
TWO TINY girls in blue school uniform dresses dance beside an even tinier record player; liveried staff stand in a Victorian kitchen, framed by rows of miniscule polished pots and pans; a woman in a 1930s bathing costume is poised at the top of a diving platform at a pool party beside a sleek modernist home.
These moments, frozen in time and picked out in miniature in a series of exquisite houses, are part of Small Stories – an exhibition of dolls’ houses at Norwich Castle.
The diminutive des reses include 18th century country mansions and grand townhouses, rooms set into a Chinesestyle cabinet, a 1980s house recreating 1940s family life in miniature, and 22 new dolls’ house rooms, designed by Norfolk people.
The 12 historic dolls’ houses from the Victoria and Albert’s Museum of Childhood in London are on a world tour, along with their 1,900 associated miniature exhibits including dolls, furniture and furnishings.
Each house is brought to life by a story told about the dolls inside. Visitors can use buttons to start the stories and illuminate tiny characters as they speak. Tales of marriage, family life, politics and crime are set in houses ranging from a country mansion to a council house and a suburban villa to a high-rise apartment.
The exhibition, which comes to Norwich after visiting Finland and the United States, also features 22 dolls’ house rooms created by Norfolk architects, artists, makers, students and children, plus a hands-on play area with dolls’ houses and furniture for visitors to arrange and rearrange.
And nearby Strangers’ Hall Museum, Norwich, has a linked programme, including the Norwich Baby House, which is one of the earliest surviving dolls’ houses and has been recently restored and illuminated with LED lighting to help people appreciate the detail of the interiors. Strangers’ Hall, once home to wealthy merchants and mayors, has an extensive toy collection including more dolls’ houses, dolls and their miniature furniture and furnishings, with a special Small Stories trail throughout the museum.
The exhibition will be opened on Friday, March 3, by Fergus Gambon, dolls’ house expert, Antiques Roadshow presenter, and son of actor Michael Gambon. Cathy Terry, senior curator of social history for Norfolk Museums Service, says: “The experience of peeking into the tiny rooms and seeing all the meticulous detail is fascinating for children and adults, and hopefully everyone will discover something new. We’re also really excited that the exhibition gives us a chance to showcase Strangers’ Hall’s marvellous dolls’ house collection which is very high quality and one of the city’s treasures which deserves to be better known.”
Linked events include chances for children to create and film animated mini-adventures for a dolls’ house doll, and workshops for adults to reproduce scaled-down versions of a favourite painting for a dolls’ house, make traditional tiny straw-work and feather-work furniture or craft miniature books. Small Stories: At home in a dolls’ house, runs at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery from Saturday, March 4 to Sunday, June 25. www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk
Left: Tate Baby House, England, 1760
Above: 18th century quill or feather-work furniture, with a pair of fashionably-dressed 18th century dolls; Strangers’ Hall collection
Top: Hopkinson House – Children’s Bedroom (set in 1940s England) 1980s-1990s
Above: Fully-equipped kitchen of the 18th century Norwich Baby House, Strangers’ Hall collection
Left: Kaleidoscope House, Laurie Simmons, Peter Wheelwright and Bozart, USA, 2001