When I was a kid, my family would sometimes visit the model train exhibit at our local tourist office in North Bay, Ontario. When I stepped into the four train boxcars, welded together and crafted into four distinct rooms, it felt like shifting into a different world.
But this large layout spread over four boxcars made me feel omnipresent, like I was seeing into the vastness of the world. Each craggy rock. Each waterfall. Each small town. Brought to a scale that even a child feels like a giant. I marveled at what was in front of me. It was beautiful in the expanse it covered in something a little over 1000 ft².
I loved that something so small can give such power to the imagination, and inspire such wider curiosity. I wanted to build something like that, to have as my own in my home growing up.
Like so many other hobby painters and modelers, my fantasy of the world was rooted in fantasy itself. When I was 10, my older brother and I walked into our local hobby store, North Bay Games & Hobbies. We scoured dozens of shelves and found our first foray into miniatures: Warhammer and Warhammer 40k, produced by Games Workshop. Over the next decade, we would dabble in army after army, faction after faction.
But as my love of history grew, I knew that would be my main path. I was reading voraciously about Canada and the world and how the world, as I knew it then, came to be. I would read a book or watch a documentary and try to replicate the scenes in my mind. And as the worlds translated into my mind and my understanding, I was interested in putting these images down into something tangible. As resources like YouTube and blogs took off, I learned more about how others were wanting to do the same thing.
History, next to astronomy and science, is the largest scale that we have tended to categorize ourselves, our cultures, our societies, and our identities. It has brought people together and has broken them apart. The multitudes that put together history means that a singular narrative is impossible. Such a large topic is difficult to scale down on paper.
And yet for generations, people have sought to miniaturize the many moments that make up this topic. Distilling history into a small 10”x10” vignette, whether dramatic or tranquil, is something that still seems to thrill people. Taking such large moments in our past and scaling it down for young and old to enjoy. To imagine. To question.
There is a strange fascination with miniature worlds. Representations of it can be found everywhere, through history to today. Beginning with the Western European examples of the 17th century, forerunners to the modern doll house began as displays of opulence, but then more formally as a teaching aid. In Germany, “Nuremberg kitchens” of the 18th century were created with scaled down kitchen appliances and furniture to instruct young girls on how to run a house. As Nicole Cooley write in The Atlantic: “a Nuremberg kitchen was the opposite of a dollhouse as a dream world of fantasy.” Though it seems strange, it does make sense that these miniature representations of the world continue to contain this instructional message.
It was interesting to learn the concept of the diorama as it migrated from the home and into the public sphere. One of the more interesting representations is the work of Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death crime scenes. At 1:12 scale, these intricate maquettes featured locking doors, legible newspapers, and even closing windows. But these detailed replications served a crucial purpose as a recreation of real crime scenes, ones that viewers were not intended to solve but to instead use to hone their ability to see. Seeing a facsimile of our world in miniature demands a kind of curiosity like no other. “Thus the miniature seizes the attention by the fact of discrepancy, and holds it by the quality of precision,” writes author Steven Millhauser. “The miniature strives toward the ideal of total imitation. The more precise, the more wonder-compelling.”
By the 20th century, nowhere was scaled-down history or the diorama more associated than in museums, dedicated model villages, or classroom projects. At any age, these provoking displays help us to see the history we are reading on a text panel or scanning through an artifact brought down to a scale where it can see at every angle. Natural history museums craft life-sized dioramas that make you feel like you’re walking alongside a moose in the muskeg or with penguins in Antarctica. Military museums attempt to distill the chaos and fury of combat into a silent freeze-frame. Rural and community museum dioramas attempt to reenact life as it may have been walking down the street, or bring humor to the history of their town (one of the most delightful I’ve come across is the town of Torrington, Alberta’s Gopher Hole Museum). Despite the range of topics covered, each one inspires the viewer to look plainly but imagine greatly.
When made small, the world invites us to slowly and patiently understand all the elements that make it up. This allows us to better understand both the world we’ve always known, as well as the places and times we’ve never been. After all, at its heart diorama comes from the Latin for “sight through or into something.”
The craft appears throughout popular culture. CBC has a competition show to select the best miniature creator each season. There are countless Youtubers who use miniature kitchens to prepare miniature meals for their miniature pet. Even the method I started out on, through Games Workshop miniatures, is said to have begun with a grown man on the floor, renowned author H.G. Wells, reenacting or dreaming up battles and adventures with his children. He even wrote the first rulebook for people to fight their own wars on floors. But while his fantasies of floor fights may seem juvenile, he did eventually dream for a real-world application of this kind of play:
“Let us put this prancing monarch and that silly scaremonger, and these excitable ‘patriots,’ and those adventurers, and all the practitioners of Welt Politik, into one vast Temple of War, with cork carpets everywhere, and plenty of little trees and little houses to knock down, and cities and fortresses, and unlimited soldiers—tons, cellars-full—and let them lead their own lives there away from us.”
As someone who works in museums and interacts with history daily, I am happy to say that my infinite wonder of negotiating with history through miniatures has not dissipated since I was young. History in miniature is my escape from the daily work I do in a former Cold War bunker, which in itself is fascinating. But being able to sweep yourself into hundreds of years of history through building scenes of it is a beautiful exercise in creativity, patience and, for me, relaxation.
My first foray into buildings scenes in miniature actually started much later in my life. Working for the North Bay Museum in 2018, I spent a summer recreating the scene of an area nearby known as Fort Laronde. During the fur trade, the fort was constructed near the mouth of the La Vase River which emptied into Lake Nipissing. Voyageurs came through the area to resupply before venturing across the lake towards Georgian Bay and further West. If you find yourself in North Bay, it is on display in the museum.
The joy I feel escaping into different eras of history, reading the small intricate details of the subjects of a scene like uniforms, structures, weather patterns and ecology of the different environments, is a pleasing exercise to remind you how big the world is. For my latest diorama of a Civil War charge c. 1863, I studied the types of trees that are native to Virginia. How many rails make up a 19th century split rail fence. What would the ground look like a little after rainfall? When you get it just right, it is a very gratifying feeling.
It might seem a bit like escapism to dedicate your time into building a smaller scale version of the world. If you look closely though, you might find something bigger than you could have imagined.
Sean Campbell is a curator at Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum.
 Cooley, Nicole. “Dollhouses Weren’t Invented for Play.” The Atlantic, July 22, 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/07/dollhouses-werent-invented-for-play/492581/
 Wells, H.G. Little Wars. 36. The Pennsylvania State University, Philadelphia, 2004.