Art Institute's Miniature Rooms Exhibit Comes Alive In Literature

Originally published on May 28, 2014 11:59 am

The Thorne Miniature Rooms are one of the Art Institute of Chicago’s most beloved exhibits: 68 miniature detailed representations of rooms that might have existed in Europe and America over some six centuries.

They inspired author Marianne Malone to write a series of children’s books aptly named “The Sixty-Eight Rooms.” The latest in the series, “The Pirate’s Coin,” is released in paperback today.

The books feature Ruthie and Jack, two sixth graders who, through a magical key, are able to shrink small enough to fit into the Thorne Rooms. They discover that some of the rooms turn out to be portals to other times and places.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson spoke to Malone last fall and we re-air the interview today.


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It's HERE AND NOW. And there is a book out in paperback today called "The Pirate's Coin." It's part of a series of children's books called "The Sixty-Eight Rooms," about one of the most popular exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago - the Thorne Rooms, sixty-eight miniature representations of rooms that might have existed in Europe or America over the past few centuries.

Chicago artist, Narcissa Thorne, first thought of the idea of miniature rooms back in the 1930s. And as the wife of the heir to the Montgomery Ward department store, she was able to hire all sorts of skilled workers to help build her dream. But when "The Pirate's Coin" came out last fall, we spoke with author Marianne Malone, who started by reading from the book which introduces us to Ruthie, a sixth grader who visits the rooms with her friend Jack and immediately falls in love with the exhibit.


MARIANNE MALONE: (Reading) Ruthie couldn't get over how realistic they were, like enchanted little worlds. Some had high ceilings and elaborate woodwork with finely carved furniture. Some looked like medieval castles. Others looked cozy and inviting.

There were miniature paintings, carpets, toys, books and musical instruments. Many of the rooms had doors through which you could peer into small side rooms and hallways. She could even see out the windows to street scenes and gardens, complete with trees and flowers or to painted landscapes beyond.

HOBSON: Well, Ruthie and Jack discover a key that allows them to shrink small enough to fit into the rooms. And as they begin to explore, they're able to go out the windows and doors of the rooms into some of the landscapes beyond. The latest book in the series is called, "The Pirate's Coin." And Marianne Malone joins us in the studio.

HOBSON: Welcome.

MALONE: Hi, how are you?

HOBSON: Doing great. And I should say from the outset that we have known each other for a long time, although apparently not well enough for me to get one of the characters in your books named after me.

MALONE: That's right. I couldn't do that.

HOBSON: Not yet. Maybe the next installment.

MALONE: Yeah, next one.

HOBSON: Well, so tell us how you got the idea to do this book about these kids who shrink down and go into the Thorne Rooms, this exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago?

MALONE: I grew up in Chicago, and the Art Institute was my home museum. My mom took me to the museum all the time from as young as I can remember in a stroller. And I have always loved those miniature rooms. I'm not alone. They are the most popular exhibit at the Art Institute.

HOBSON: When I first read the first installment of your series, I remember, you know, thinking, wow, this is cool. These kids can shrink down to size and get into these rooms. That's so interesting. But I was totally taken by surprise at the thought that they could go out the window and be in the time periods.

MALONE: Exactly. Mrs. Thorne was very smart. She set the rooms with dioramas painted outside the windows so you can see cityscapes and landscapes of the time. And that's half the fun. When you go to visit the rooms, you can look out the windows and imagine what's going on out there, which of course I had to do.

And I had to bring my characters out there and meet Sophie, a girl from the French Revolution, and Thomas, a boy from the time of the Salem Witch trials. It was just something that the art historian in me couldn't resist.

HOBSON: And in your second book, these two meet this young Jewish girl in Paris in 1937. They can't help warning her and her family that leaving might be a good idea. And these two kids, Jack and Ruthie, seem to want to really help the people that they find in the past.

MALONE: Exactly. They go back to Paris in 1937, and they meet a Jewish refugee named Louisa. They also discover that that very summer - the summer of 1937 was the summer that Amelia Earhart was flying around the world and of course didn't make it.

And they realized they can't help Amelia Earhart, but Louisa they could help. So they have to make a decision about what they can and can't do with the time travel.

HOBSON: How close to the history did you have to stay, and how much research did you have to do to figure out - not just that part of it in World War II, but also in this latest edition, all about a shipwreck off of Cape Cod?

MALONE: Yes. One of Mrs. Thorne's rooms is a Cape Cod room from the mid-18th to 19th century. And I started poking around and discovered that there was a pirate ship that sank off the coast of Cape Cod, just around that time.

I thought, well, that'll be wonderful to poke around and explore the history of pirates off the coast. And kids love anything having to do with pirates. So I was able to take my characters back to that time, discover a very important connection between one of my characters and this pirate. And it's just fun. It's exciting.

HOBSON: And you introduce the idea as often is the case in books and movies that are about time travel, that it's not always a great idea to mess with people that you find back in the past.

MALONE: Exactly. Jack causes some very real trouble for himself and for Ruthie by going back in time. And they have to see if they can undo it.

HOBSON: What age group do you want to be reading these books?

MALONE: It's great for fourth and fifth graders. But I've just come from a whole school district where I've been talking to the K-5, the entire school district, where they chose it as their one community summer read, which has happened a lot with these books.

And part of the reason is they're great read aloud books. They were nominated for the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award, which I'm extraordinarily proud of.

HOBSON: And as I read them, I think to myself, this is the kind of thing that is going to make kids want to go to a museum, go to an art museum, be interested in history. What about that? Was there part of you that was just trying to write a book that would bring some interest to these kids who are now spending a lot more time on the computer and inside?

MALONE: Very much, very much part of my motivation in writing it. I tell the kids when I go and talk to them that one of the things I spent my time doing was making things like Thorne Rooms, miniatures myself. You can't do that when you're always in front of a computer screen. You've got to step away from it.

HOBSON: We're speaking with Marianne Malone, her latest book in "The Sixty-Eight Rooms" series is "The Pirate's Coin." And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. And Marianne, I know that these books are doing really well in Japan, right?

MALONE: Yeah, I get fan mail from Japan. That's really exciting.

HOBSON: Why do you think that this?

MALONE: My agent said that the publisher in Japan said they're very interested in things having to do with miniatures - always have been. And in fact, that's the one edition where they've changed the title. The title of " The Sixty-Eight Rooms" is called "An Adventure At 112 Scale."



It's interesting to me.

HOBSON: So when was the last time that you went to the Thorne Rooms? And are you able to go now and not just imagine shrinking down to size, going into them and going out the back windows?

MALONE: Well, I've never been able to go into them and not think about shrinking and going outside the windows. I'm definitely - I have bought into that fantasy. But I go there. I was there last month.

You know, I have to check on details, things I can't see in the photographs in the catalog. And it's really fun. I get to go and people don't recognize me. And I hear docents giving "Sixtey-Eight Rooms" books tours now. I hear kids going around saying, oh, look. Here's where Jack and Ruthie went.

And in fact, the woman who is the caretaker of the Thorne Rooms - very nice woman named McCann Morgan, who works at the Art Institute - told me that not too long ago she was back in the corridor - the corridor...

HOBSON: This is the corridor that they have to go through when they're getting in and out of the Thorne rooms.

MALONE: Exactly. It runs behind all of the rooms. It's the access corridor. She was back there and she heard something, somebody fiddling with the door. And she thought maybe somebody was looking for her.

She opened the door and there were these two fifth-grade boys, wide-eyed, looking like they were going to get in big trouble. And she smiled at them, and they screamed and squealed and ran off to their classmates saying, we found the corridor. We found the corridor.

HOBSON: But they were full-size.

MALONE: They were full-size.

HOBSON: That was author Marianne Malone. Her series of kids' books about the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago is called "The Sixty-Eight Rooms." The latest book in that series, "The Pirate's Coin," comes out in paperback today. And the next title, "The Secret Of The Key," is expected in late July. We spoke to Marianne Malone in September of last year.

And, Robin, my question to you.

YOUNG: Oh, boy.

HOBSON: If you could go into these rooms and come out of the window into any time period, anyplace in the world, what would it be?

YOUNG: Well, you know what? This is completely selfish. I would go back to New York in the early settling by the Dutch of New York because I've always wanted to find out about a great, great aunt. She's an artist named Mary Vanderveer (ph). So if I could go hang with my great, great aunt...


YOUNG: ...That would be fantastic.

HOBSON: I have to say, just because I've been watching "Games Of Thrones," I kind of would send myself to the Middle Ages.

YOUNG: Oh, no. What about the red wedding?

HOBSON: Although, that's probably not what you would want. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.