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The magic of miniatures: Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle makeover at the Museum of Science and Industry

In an 80-year-old home, scorched ceilings and walls, and water leaks from outdated electrical and plumbing systems are a problem. They’re an especially big problem in a miniature home.

If you go

The public conservation will run through mid-February.

Specialists will work Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9:30 a.m.
to 4:30 p.m., but will take short breaks from Dec. 23-29 and
Jan. 4-14.

On Sundays and Mondays starting Dec. 8, you can see
Bozena Pszczulna-Szymanski, book conservator with Paper
Conservation Studio, treat 58 miniature books from the collection
exclusively created for the Fairy Castle library.

That miniature home is Colleen Moore’s iconic Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry. The castle has been taken apart – and shifted one room over – this winter as it undergoes a meticulous makeover.

For the first time though, the work is being done in full public view.

Through February, the castle conservation will exist as an exhibit within an exhibit – giving visitors a chance to engage specialists who are painstakingly working to stabilize and safeguard the dated castle infrastructure, as well as admire the castle’s storied artifacts in 360-degree view.

One thing’s clear: This ain’t your typical dollhouse.

The meticulous magnificence of Moore’s nearly nine-foot doll castle ensures there’s something for everyone to see.

Tucked into a dim museum corner, the exhibit’s 1,500 tiny artifacts glimmer and shine invitingly, providing just enough light visitors need.

Most of the artifacts are so small that just talking in front of them could blow them over, so even during conservation they are kept encased in glass.

On a recent visit, 8-year-old Riley Baden of Chicago excitedly led her grandmother, Ramona Marotz-Baden, who was visiting from Montana, by the hand from case to case.

“It’s pretty neat,” Riley said. “I really like Cinderella’s shoes.”

If the castle restoration goes according to plan, Riley will be able to show those same Cinderella slippers to grandchildren of her own.

The conservation process

Four conservation specialists with extensive knowledge in chemistry and material science are making structural repairs to the castle.

The castle contains running water as well as electricity, which is part of the reason it’s in need of repairs.

Soon, the castle will again come to life with modern lighting and its water features will be replaced with fiber optic machinery which will replicate flowing water but prevent future leaks. The new lighting will maintain an old look, however, and even its original plumbing will be left in place after treatment in an attempt to uphold the castle’s historic integrity.

“Everything they do is reversible,” museum curator Margaret Schlesinger said of the specialists’ work.

For example, some of the paint on the castle’s exterior is flaking. To fix it, experts apply special glue underneath the flakes before pressing them back down and using another concoction to make the surface adhere once again.

Finally, they’ll apply a matching acrylic paint for a seamless repair, one that can be completely undone layer-by-layer if future specialists think it’s necessary.

This way the castle’s integrity remains intact, ensuring that the exhibit’s lasting impressions really last.

“This type of work typically goes unseen by guests, but it’s critical work that is of the highest importance to us,” museum director of collections Kathleen McCarthy said.

“This is a great opportunity for kids and adults alike to learn more about the science and technology involved in preserving artifacts.”

So, what’s the intrigue?

If the conservation work isn’t enough to sell you on a trip to a giant dollhouse, some of what’s inside just might.

Usually, the castle’s 1,500 miniatures are difficult to see as they are all neatly set, each in its ornate place. But now, each room can be viewed from all sides. Guests can press their noses just inches from the world’s smallest Bible; a Syrian vase from 740 A.D.; an authentic Roman Bronze head; a painting donated by Walt Disney himself; or pewter mugs with wooden handles – the wood coming from a damaged Westminster Abbey.

“It has something for everyone,” Schlesinger said. “It’s a tradition for folks to come back generation after generation.”

“They get caught in the fantasy – in wanting to be six inches tall.”

Schlesinger said the exhibit speaks to all ages: 6-year-olds to 60-year-olds and hipsters to middle-aged men.

“I’ve heard every single age group remark on how cool it is.”

There’s a sense of wonder, or magic, these homes and items evoke.

“It’s the imagination of it all,” museum spokeswoman Beth Boston said, “of making fantasy a reality, of making what seems impossible-possible.”

No matter your age, height or style, the miniature world makes room for you to escape.

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