Small Worlds Museum in the Czech Republic
Part One – How it all began
by Gil Bomber
Have you ever dreamed of showing your collection of much loved dolls houses to the public? Or would you rather keep them to yourself and gloat over them in private? My dream was always to share – and dreams can come true!
I've been collecting, making and modifying dolls houses and miniatures for over forty years. My first dolls house was given to me for Christmas 1945, just before my fourth birthday.
When I was eight it disappeared for a short while, to reappear beautifully repainted and with an extra storey containing two more rooms and a fantastic roof garden. Sadly, my mother gave it away when I was in my early twenties and although I tried desperately to locate it, it was gone for ever – and I don't even have a photo of it once it had been renovated. I have often wondered how much I would be prepared to pay were it to appear on ebay one day!
I have a feeling that my large collection of houses came about as a result of having lost that first, much-loved house. I didn't actually intend to start a collection – well not consciously anyway. When my own daughter, Alison, was four I looked in the shops for a house for her, hated all that I could find, and put an advert in the paper for a large old dolls house. I finished up with five large old houses, none went to Alison, and that was the beginning. Then, like Topsy, the collection "just growed".
For quite a lot of those forty years my houses sat happily in my spare room at home and most of my guests enjoyed lying in bed and gazing at a wildly mixed assortment of houses and room settings. Very occasionally a group of local miniaturists would come for a meeting at my house and then the dolls houses would be duly admired.
I also used to give a talk to women's organisations called "Dolls Houses – a Dangerous Obsession" to which I used to lug a number of them. I finally gave that up because shifting ten or more houses and an equal number of banana boxes full of individual room settings became very tedious. Pricing the talk out of the market didn't work so I just shifted to other subjects…..
Then about 11 years ago my son, who had been living with his one-day-wife-to-be up in our loft conversion, announced the imminent arrival of their first child. They were anxious about continuing to live up in the loft with a baby – the stairs were not the easiest things to negotiate – and asked if they could take over two of the downstairs bedrooms, which would include the guest room.
A general post ensued – daughter moved from the second of those rooms up into the loft, where she had actually always wanted to be, and the dolls houses moved very rapidly into the garage. I happened to be on a short visit to the UK at that moment, from my other home in the Czech Republic, and I can remember spending most of the break packing up houses and their contents and helping to schlepp them to the garage. Little did I know that I would not see them again for more than ten years…. I hasten to add that the houses were all covered up in the garage, though the photos actually show them uncovered.
I had always wanted my dolls houses to be available to a wider audience but I knew that I could never afford to set up a museum in the UK. When I bought my house in a village in South Bohemia I had hoped that the old cow shed attached to one side of the house would be big enough to house a small museum.
However, after the renovation had taken place it was clear that the room could not double – or indeed quadruple – as a teaching room for the Alexander Technique lessons I was giving, a playroom for visiting grandchildren, a spare bedroom and a dolls house museum. So the idea went into hibernation.
The imminent sale of our house of forty years in the UK, however, meant that something had to be done about the dolls houses. Either I would need to sell most of them, perhaps keeping just the few that had not been banished to the garage but still had pride of place in the living room, such as our big Victorian Walmer:
or the Dutch house:
or I would have to find them a home in the Czech Republic. I consulted a Czech friend in the village where I live and she in turn made approaches to the mayor – the key person to have on your side in any local enterprise.
He was very open to the idea of making a room available to me at reasonable rates and asked that I should give a short presentation to the "inner cabinet" of the village council. So armed with a couple of small houses which had already made the journey to the CR in preparation for something like this, and accompanied by a Czech friend in case my language skills did not prove adequate for the task, I attended a meeting just over a year ago.
The mayor had done his job well – persuasion was not really needed and the next day I set off with my daughter, the mayor and the head of technical services to look at the room he had in mind.
I was a little taken aback at how dreary the room looked. The size was about right but it had a very high ceiling covered with horrible brown plastic tiles, a relic of communist times, brown formica panelling halfway up all the walls, and a brown vinyl floor. There were not many power points and the whole was topped off by a small sink with a broken mirror and tile surround.
The room had been used in its last incarnation as a gym but I learned later that it had once been a shop and before that an electrical workshop.
The mayor was clearly very keen indeed to have a dolls house museum in the village! He said yes to all my suggestions about redecorating, and rewiring and the head of technical services suggested solving the ceiling problem by the very simple method of lowering it, covering up the dreadful brown tile horrors. Daughter and I were due to head back to England in late July to get ready for my son's wedding (she was responsible for the whole set-up – you can read about it on her blog if you are interested: http://alisonbomber.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/a-handmade-wedding.html) and the council agreed to do the work whilst we were away. Alison was due to stay in England, doing a free-lance contract with the Royal Shakespeare Company as a voice and text coach, whilst I was heading back to the Czech Republic for another 3 months. So I would have a chance to make sure the room was as we wanted it before the houses arrived from the UK.
That's a very easy phrase to write " before the houses arrived from the UK". Easier written than done however. You will remember that the houses were for the most part buried in the garage,
possibly inhabited by mice, certainly invaded by spiders. Once we had unearthed them they were going to take a lot of packing and careful loading to get them over to Bavorov in one piece. And I did not help matters by finding an amazing offer on UK ebay just before our return to England – and winning the six houses on offer in deepest Essex with a ridiculously low bid of £35.55. Apologies for the poor quality of the photo…..
To make matters even worse I then found another large house on ebay which I got for £8.
And we didn't want just the houses over in the Czech Republic, but also all the counters and shelves on which they would be displayed. Not to mention the drawers into which the accumulated collection of tiny objects and possibly useful bits of wood, plastic, metal etc would have to be sorted and stored. It was going to be a logistic nightmare. Should I employ a removal firm from the Czech end or the UK end? Should we try to pack and transport ourselves? I much preferred that option but didn't want to do the nearly 800 mile drive myself in a van, and son wasn't in a position to be able to do it either. And then the van had to return to its starting point as well.
After much anxious thought, it was a chance remark to a friend which resolved matters. He announced that he would be happy to help load everything, and together with a friend of his, drive it all over, unload, and then get the van back to the UK within the hire week. Little did he know what he was letting himself in for! But son and I duly organised the largest van one can legally drive without a special licence and everything was set for its departure towards the end of October 2012. The whole job had to be done before 1st November when it is compulsory to have winter tyres on all vehicles in the Czech Republic.
I was hugely relieved that I was going to be back in the CR before all this happened. However, before I could escape there was the small matter of getting the houses out of the garage and assessing their condition, and also of clearing the old BBC oak archive cupboards which had been used for storing many things in our utility room.
Floor to ceiling shelving was also due to travel over so all the books on it had to be moved - and the storage drawers and a room divider were going to come from my bedroom so they all had to be emptied as well.
I am blessed with very good friends and one of them sat with me day after day tipping out uniboxes that had been hastily shoved into the garage all those years before and putting the contents into the hundreds of shoe boxes I had collected from the local market.
Son and I transported all the houses from the garage to the front room, shoe boxes were put into the houses and drawers and then I scarpered to the CR, leaving organised chaos behind me.
Meanwhile, in another country……the room had been transformed.
All I now had to do was to locate a painter since we had decided that all the museum furniture had to be of one colour in order to present a unified whole, and to find a carpenter to add a top to the four archive cupboards which would be lying on their sides as display units for the majority of the houses. The painter was easy – our small village happens to house the biggest independent paint shop in South Bohemia. Builders and painters come from miles around to source their paints there. So I asked for a recommendation and two days later John the Baptist appeared on my doorstep. Well, a highly skilled and efficient painter who had a beard like that of John the Baptist when he emerged from the desert…..
The carpenter was equally easy – a friend of a friend. So all set up and ready to go, paint chosen and skilled workers booked, I awaited the arrival of the houses.
I think we were all delighted that I was many hundreds of miles away whilst the packing and loading was going on. My adult children did an amazing job of wrapping and test loading. Because all the heavy pine drawers – packed full to bursting with shoe boxes – had to be test-loaded into the archive cupboards, labelled, and then removed again because it would all have been impossible to shift otherwise. Paul and Simon duly arrived on the appointed day, they picked up the van and loading began – and after many hours, finally ended!
I was on tenterhooks at the other end, desperately hoping everything would fit, but not quite believing that it would. And worrying about the tendency of British Customs officials to pull vehicles over to make them unload their contents before boarding the ferry. I think Paul and Simon might have turned round had that happened.
Next time – A museum opens…… and in the meantime, you can see more on my blog, Cestina's dolls houses.