DOWNTOWN — Keeping up appearances at the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute is no small task.
As their keeper, Lindsay Mican Morgan cares for the 68 rooms — 69 with a Frank Lloyd Wright replica on long-term loan — and their countless tiny objects.
"It's basically everything within a museum, all composed within all these miniature rooms," Morgan said. "We do try and treat every object as it would be in the rest of the museum."
That means collaborating with many different departments from across the Art Institute to keep everything from wooden coffee tables to silver fruit bowls looking pristine.
And as opposed to other artifacts at the Art Institute — like, say, an Egyptian amulet that can't help showing its 3,000 years, or a Renoir its 130 — the Thorne rooms must look timeless: As though, if you were 6 inches tall, you could step right into a boudoir in 18th century France or a living room in the 1940s in California.
"There’s a little oddity in these miniature period rooms that they also have to look decent," Morgan said. "It is a stronger case of having to weigh out, case by case, objects within the room, whether it makes more sense archivally to hold on to an object and clean it ... [or when] duplication of the objects as closely to the originals as possible is preferred."
Items for the rooms originally were commissioned by Mrs. James Ward Thorne in the 1930s and '40s. Her collection's pieces emulate specific locations, years and even times of day.
Morgan cleans each room, on average, every four months. Some rooms require less upkeep, only needing semiannual cleanings, and a couple must be spruced up almost every month.
"It's a mystery what makes some attract more dust than others," she said.
As Morgan dusts and wipes the miniatures with brushes and cloths, she assesses their condition, seeing where old, dry animal hide glue is causing a chair leg to come loose, or where a leather seat might need some lotion.
Inside the rooms, the items that get hit the hardest by wear and tear are drapery, rugs and other fabrics.
"Sadly, in a lot of ways, these rooms are horrible environments for textiles," Morgan said. "The rest of our textiles in the museum are only on view from around three months to six months, at most, and this is every day of the year."
The carefully chosen fluorescent bulbs that light the rooms have low heat output, but they still do damage to the more delicate fibers. Over the years, drapes have been replicated after being damaged by intense lighting, Morgan said.
The aspect of the rooms most difficult to maintain are the exterior landscapes. The plants are subjected to more light and airflow and are often made from delicate materials like paper or dried flowers, Morgan said.
"It's just a nightmare to clean, so being able to replicate is key in those areas," she said.
To replicate the plants, Morgan first tests different processes by experimenting with different materials like clay, paint, wiring and plastic. Sometimes, the modern processes she uses end up being "too new, almost too lifelike" for the Thorne rooms.
As opposed to the interiors, the miniature exteriors are softer and more "painterly." That also makes them more interpretive, with Morgan sometimes having to guess what type of plant was was being represented.
"The backdrops aren't meant to fully draw your eye. It's supposed to be that airy, hazy distance that alludes to a scene and a backdrop," she said.
Keeping up the plants and furniture of the Thorne Rooms can be a battle, Morgan said, but the dust and dirt tracked in is only a testament to how well-loved they are.
"It is a living environment that is interacting with the public constantly. People are often heading in from outside and heading straight down here," Morgan said, and laughed: "We're not so strict we're going to make people wear hazmat suits or anything to come view the Thorne Rooms."
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