Small-scale history?

Recently I’ve been researching an article on miniature villages and public history. They are a 20th century phenomenon, and often remembered as somewhat kitschy tourist destinations. But I have discovered that few historians have paid much attention to them, even though the sites themselves often claim to be presenting “history”, in representing a town as it once was.

I’ve visited two such places recently, and in a few weeks will be visiting Taman Mini in Indonesia.

I’m hoping to link the phenomenon of miniature villages with other 20th century miniature phenomena, like the crime scene dollhouses, which I saw when they were on display in Washington last year.

Murder is Her Hobby at the Renwick Gallery showed the crime scene dioramas built by Frances Glessner Lee from the 1940s as forensic teaching tools. The tiny clues are visible, and students used them to learn about how to approach a real crime scene.

The little figures are often quite grisly, showing the signs of violence suffered by their real-world countrparts. it seems discordant to see dolls presented in this way. We think of dollhouses as cute and domestic, not traumatic. So the uncanny disjunction makes these scenes fascinating.

The models now belong to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The display was engaging, with magnifying glasses available and visitors encouraged to try to spot all the clues. Apparently each one is based on a real crime, but the exhibit organizers were tight-lipped about them! (Online, there are some speculations about the real crimes behind them). So there was no way to know whether we got it right….

Miniature villages present the opposite of crime and danger (usually), offering an idealised image of the past in tiny form. They often began as someone’s hobby, rather than as a purpose built tourist attraction. There’s clearly a link between this kind of model building and the popularity of model railways, which peaked around the same time. Again the builder can create an imaginative world, often in idealised ways.

The discordance of violence with these miniature worlds reminded me of a sketch in the tv show Fonejacker, which is based on prank telephone calls. In this case the caller asks a model railway shop owner if he has various figurines, including various elements of social disruption and carnage. Watch on youtube.