London: V&A Publishing, 143 pp., $24.95 (paper)
Changing scale is one of the fundamental physical dramas of childhood, an experience of constantly being uncontrollably altered, whose translation into imagination—and knowledge—naturally preoccupies many classics of children’s literature. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is both miniaturized and magnified. Her abrupt and helpless metamorphoses in both directions are comic, ridiculous, and terrifying, while in Gulliver’s Travels, alterations of scale are part of what we experience as travelers in relation to foreign cultures and are sometimes no less than a matter of life and death. How things “turn out” in a story is often resolved through some variation on changing stature. Words themselves are miniatures, small as Proust’s madeleines in proportion to the worlds they describe.
Alterations of size can be expressed through environment, as in Robinson Crusoe or The Swiss Family Robinson, where the characters’ struggles to house, feed, and clothe themselves on deserted islands reduce them in scale in relation to the surrounding enormity of danger and solitude, while their eventual mastery of the natural world restores them to maturity. And elasticity of scale can be represented socially, as in tales like Perrault’s Donkeyskin, in which the peasant is revealed to be a princess, or in the Arabian Nights tale in which a djinn is subdued by the wit of a fisherman, and obliged to grant his wishes—the most powerful of all changes of scale, when an invisible wish is translated from imagination into reality.
Sarah Wood and Alice Sage, the curators of the “Small Stories” exhibition of dollhouses, have found ingenious ways to play with scale and changing dimensions in order to bring the installation’s twelve featured structures, all but two English, ranging in date from 1673 to the 1990s, to dynamic life. The show, which originated at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London and opened in May at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., offers a rich experience to both children and adult audiences simultaneously, no small feat, while the catalog vividly presents the range of houses included. Rooms reproduced from two different miniature houses have been expanded to life-size dimensions as part of the exhibition. Visitors can actually walk through or sit in a version of the kitchen…
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