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Creating Small Worlds

27 April 2013   Recently we found ourselves designing small worlds.  The brief came from the museums of Pennine Lancashire, which – if you’ve never been there – is a landscape of high moorlands and deep, wooded valleys, bleak in November but brimming with bird song and streams in high summer.  The more we talked the more specific grew their brief, which in the end became a request for welcome moments in each museum that would capture their shared personalities.

Now one of the things that makes Pennine Lancashire feel so quirky is that the descendants of the old industrialists – the ones who made such fortunes in the mines and the mills – often spent their money on the products of high art.  Which is why it is that the museums around there are so full of exquisite textiles, Byzantine icons, Persian ceramics and Tiffany glass.

The audience we were after was largely families, but the budget was small, and the time in which to work was even smaller.  We couldn’t afford film nor digital interactives.  So thus constrained we did the only thing we could and began designing small worlds, using tricks that have been delighting children for hundreds of years.

It is remarkable the power that small worlds have over us.  From dolls houses, netsuke and the miniature realms of fairies, to ‘Gullivers Travels’ and ‘Honey, I shrank the kids’, small worlds have been entrancing us for hundreds of years.

Small worlds flatter us by drawing us into their secrets. They charm us by suggesting the magic of all microcosms, that the universe can be shrunk to the size of a toy.  And they tease us, because first they give us a god’s-eye view, the power to look them over and examine all their details, and then they block us, because the world they occupy is too small for us to enter.  Thus far and no further – it is the charm and the frustration of miniature worlds.

At Rossendale we devised a model of the museum, complete with miniature artefacts and even including – in Russian-doll style – a model of the model.  In Blackburn we created miniature versions of the museum’s galleries, including its beautiful, green, art deco staircase.  In Towneley Hall we created a Cabinet of Curiosities – boxes really, filled with peepholes and other surprises.

It was the smallest job in the Metaphor office but it had the most charisma.  No one walked past it without stopping to  look.

What we learnt from designing miniature worlds is that detail is everything, that we are enraptured by small worlds because we love their detail;  that games of scale also delight us – tiny paintings next to giant butterflies escaping from their cases; and that playfulness (of which, alas, there is not enough in modern museums though there was plenty in the old Cabinets of Curiosities) goes hand in hand with miniature-ness.

Metaphor created these small worlds with the talented help of Alice Pattullo, the illustrator, and Lucy Askew and Robert Dawson of the Model Room. The best book I know on Small Worlds is ‘The Art of Small Things’ by John Mack, published six years ago but still good. By Rachel Morris