What do you get when you take a grand Victorian mansion, all of its ornately detailed furnishings, wallpaper, wooden flooring, and inhabitants (including pets!), and shrink them down to 1/12 their natural size? Well, a dollhouse, of course!
Dollhouses were a passion for museum founder Margaret Woodbury Strong, as they have been for people throughout the centuries, dating as far back as the 1500s. It is easy to understand the appeal of these tiny treasures. Anyone who has had the pleasure of standing in front of a well-made dollhouse will tell you that the craftsmanship and passion that goes into creating each realistic detail is astounding. So I was thrilled to learn that the upcoming Build, Drive, Go! exhibit will feature several fully furnished dollhouses from the museum’s collection. While I dreamed of finally playing out my fantasy of becoming a 19th-century interior decorator, I did not anticipate the challenge that lay ahead.
The problem with all of those tiny embroidered pillows, hand painted china, and other intricate details that make miniatures so delightful is that they are… miniature. They are really miniature. There is also another problem. All of these incredible miniature things live inside of a miniature room with miniature walls and miniature ceilings. Unfortunately, the walls and ceiling cast full-sized shadows into the rooms when lit from outside of the dollhouse, making it all but impossible to see and appreciate the full impact of the tiny items inside. Margaret understood this problem and had many of her dollhouses internally wired for electric lighting. Fortunately, the dollhouses chosen for the exhibit still had wire entry holes in the walls from the previous lighting system, but the actual fixtures no longer existed.
Margaret clearly intended for her dollhouses to be lit internally in order to be enjoyed to their fullest potential, but the decision to emulate her display technique came with a list of additional challenges. The first and most important consideration was the kind of light that we would need to use. Any lights inside the rooms would be in incredibly close proximity to historic wallpapers and textiles, two of the most light-sensitive materials in any museum collection. Damage from light exposure is cumulative and is not reversible, and the closer an object is to a light source, the more intense the exposure. We needed to find a light source that would give off enough light to allow full enjoyment of the miniatures, but that would have a low enough output to protect the materials. The small space also made heat, which can also be damaging to historic materials. The best way to minimize exposure to heat and high light levels is to use LED lights, but it is often difficult to find LEDs with the correct color temperature and in the correct size for museum applications.
I recognized that we also had to find a lighting system that would work with the existing holes for wires in the walls. Since there were no holes in the ceilings or floors and cutting new holes into museum artifacts is strongly frowned upon, we could not add bulb sockets or wire tiny chandeliers into the ceiling. “But wait, what about tape wire?” I hear you suggesting helpfully. Well, tape wire is exactly what it sounds like—tape. Just as cutting holes into museum objects is not okay, neither is sticking long strips of adhesive-backed electrical material onto historic wallpapers and paint. Battery-operated miniature lights were another potential option. I would have loved to add “shopping for tiny table lamps to compliment existing pink velvet regency sofas” as a legitimate part of my job description. Unfortunately, most of the batteries in miniature fixtures simply do not last long enough to be practical for a museum exhibit.
After eliminating several options, we decided to go for a simpler approach. We purchased miniature LED bulbs that are housed inside of tiny wooden boxes. The lights were easily wired together through the existing wire holes and attached to the ceiling of each room with reversible conservation materials. The small lights are unobtrusive and do not distract from the furnishings and artifacts inside of the room. Though not quite as fun as shopping for tiny decorative lighting accessories, this solution provides enough light for guests to appreciate the miniature details with illumination levels that are safe for the fragile artifacts. Be sure to stop by and enjoy the dollhouses on the second floor of the museum during your next trip to The Strong!