Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 11, 2023

Walters' miniature exhibit offers monumental treasures

By NATALIE BERKMAN | October 12, 2009

Until Nov. 8, the Walters Art Museum will be showing an exhibit that will seem surprising after the trek to the third floor. A visit to the museum, located near the Peabody Conservatory, begins with one of two entrances.

The entrance on the Charles Street side is breathtaking. A visitor finds himself surrounded by columns, shining marble statues and pictures of the universe taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

This enclosed courtyard mixes old and new: ancient representations of the deities and planets contrasted with pictures of the new conception of the universe. All of the themes that one encounters in this walk inside the Walters are both grandiose and intimidating.

After taking in the indoor courtyard, the statues of the gods and the telescope photography, the new exhibition, entitled "Shrunken Treasures: Miniaturization in Books and Art," is a collection of tiny artifacts. It certainly is some form of paradigm shift as one adjusts from looking at a grand representation of the universe to small representations of art.

Perusing this room filled with miniature treasures, it is possible to see art from many different cultures - Asian, French, British, Turkish and Arabic are only a few represented. These range in time period from almost 2000 B.C.E. to the 18th or 19th centuries C.E. Many are books, most religious, and all have interesting stories accompanying them.

For example, according to one sign, "miniature writing is often felt to have magical powers, especially when it is hidden." Thus, an amuletic inscription was written on a gold sheet and rolled into a tiny capsule in the Roman 4th and 5th centuries.

Some artifacts in the room are toys, the most obvious form of miniaturization. This is a type of art that everyone is familiar with, beginning in childhood.

Indeed, according to the Walters, "Psychologists believe that play is an important means for children to make sense of the world and their place in it; by taking control of a soldier, car or other grown-up object, children assert some power over the often confusing adult world."

This type of observation is posted on the walls and in the cases all around the exhibit, turning this simple trip to a museum into a history lesson with philosophic and psychological analyses.

A room of miniatures makes one think. Everything that is created is a sort of miniature. Is it possible for people to represent vast ideas without shrinking them down?

There are holy books, miniatures that shrink the idea of religion into a book in order to explain impossibilities, all around the room. They were more portable due to their small size, which facilitated the spread of the ideas contained within them.

Some miniature books, however, were for reference. The concept of things in miniature is not only found in the Walters. In fact, even Hopkins is a miniature: Here, students use a microcosm in order to learn skills to bring to the real world outside it.

Scientists study the small to understand the large, a minute change in anything can alter it completely. In short, miniatures shrink complexities to understandable levels in all aspects of life and help people approach the universe and ideas beyond the scope of one's own mind and experience.

While the concept of a miniature in art is certainly an interesting subject to ponder, the exhibit itself is simply one room of miniatures and a smaller room in the back with a computer and brief history of book making.

The magnifying glasses are practically useless when used a mere two feet away from a tiny object that is contained in a case of thick glass. The writing in the miniature books is small and mostly in other languages, so even with the useless magnifying glass, it is almost impossible to understand what is contained in the books.

The room in the back is more oriented toward children with big, colorful pictures on the walls and an interactive touch-screen computer.

The computer can take one closer to the miniatures than the exhibit however, for it contains a library that lets one see zoomed-in pages of the books. Being able to examine the artifacts in detail can add a certain amount of appreciation for the tiny details that adorn them. Not surprisingly, this collection of miniatures takes a short amount of time to peruse.

The Walters Museum is free and only a short shuttle ride away. A trip to an enormous building can make one look at the smaller things in life. So, go see some portable Bibles, toy houses, folding books and pictures made of tiny words. Then, five minutes later, sit in the courtyard surrounded by columns, statues and the universe.

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