Think very, very small. Tiny. Little. Miniature.
Imagine you are one-twelfth your usual size, and all the world has shrunk in the wash to a scale of an inch to a foot -- or even half an inch.
Now you're ready to go through the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall to see "Small Wonders: The Delightful World of Miniatures." The exhibit, on display until New Year's Day, was put together in collaboration with the Toy and Miniature Museum of Kansas City, the principal lender.
"It's really for children over 55," explains William Robertson, the show's curator, though unlike the usual shows of miniature antiques, all these tiny pieces have been made within the last 10 years. Robertson, who searched them out all across the country, says the show is proof that modern hands have not lost the cunning of the old master craftsmen. The thousands and thousands of objects vary from the size of fingernails to so small they can't be seen without magnifying glasses, says Nancy Beers, Explorers Hall coordinator, who glued them down for hours and hours.
These are not just doll houses and toys for girls and boys, but exquisite crafts: three whole houses; a minute camera that actually takes pictures and a press that prints them, made by William Gould and Harvey Libowitz; a rug made of 87,000 stitches by Sharon Garmize; flower arrangements hardly bigger than seeds by Mary Payne; a row of presidential busts about the size of buttons by August Crabtree, who also took eight years to make the 17th-century-style Dutch state yacht; a logging train of 2,000 pieces by Robert and Dennis Love; Fordson Major tractors by Brian Parks and Norman Veber.
National Geographic Vice President Leonard Grant designed the show's fac ade, a full-sized Victorian tiered porch. The exhibit itself was designed by Michael Blakeslee. Beyond is a Lilliputian land that includes:
"Twin Manors," a Georgian mansion that Robertson -- who rebuilt full-sized automobiles before he took up miniatures -- spent five years building in his Wheaton basement. The mansion has a thousand screws in its aluminum frame, and doorknobs and spring-loaded latches that really work. His mother Esther Robertson decorated the house, spending 700 hours painting it. She worked the petit point for the chairs and the rugs, and even left a work in progress on a needlepoint frame. The upstairs hall has a hand-painted mural by Heather Stewart Diaz, inspired by a mural in the Lindens in Kalorama. A Copley-style portrait, by Marjorie Adams, is actually of Esther Robertson.
"Reflections," a mysterious creation that came about because Madelyn Cook's husband said she couldn't redecorate her house in art deco. So she built a miniature of her madness -- a bedroom, sitting room and bath of etched mirrors and black walls, a fish tank around a tub, a black swan bed. Cook also made the "Indian Art Gallery," hung with necklaces hardly bigger than grains of desert sand. Hand-painted pottery stands ready to catch a raindrop. Indian totems evoke the gods. An animal-horn chair awaits.
An 1890s firehouse built by Stephen Richter, a retired Wheaton fireman who copied doors, windows, engines and harnesses from U.S. Patent Office particulars.
A garden show house by Dusty Boynton that has glass panels and even a garden hammock.
A trailer house that has an overstuffed chair decaying in the foreground, tires on the roof and a bent antenna. The wry work by Tim Prythero is an untidy antidote to the sometimes too pretty miniatures.
And miniature rooms by Tom Roberts, a San Francisco wallpaper designer, in collaboration with his father Guy Roberts, a retired businessman, that are true sculpture.
"Homage to Vermeer" is a tiny version of one of the painter's Dutch interiors, complete with the right light. "Mozartstrasse 52, Wien 1837" has an archway showing off a mural, a tiny statue of Napoleon, a cloud-painted ceiling, wallpaper in a Viennese shade pattern, faux marble and Biedermeier furniture, perfect to the period and the scale. The "French Wallpaper Store" is stocked with photographically reduced miniaturizations of the products. The "Office of the Curator of Egyptian Antiques, British Museum, 1881," shows small statues of cats, pharaohs -- everything but mummies -- as far as you can see.
But the Roberts team's biggest effort went into "Antique Shop and Residence," with its cabinetmaker's shop in the rear and, above the store, the proper sort of living quarters, stuffed with plaster busts, exotic furniture and other rare and curious art and artifacts. Looking at it, you want to sneeze at imagined dust. Tom Roberts said he and his father built it to hold "a great many things for which we didn't have a place."
Parents who have been especially pleasant to their children this year may be, as a treat, taken to see this show -- several times.