Small Worlds Museum in the Czech Republic
Part Two A museum opens – almost...
by Gil Bomber
Waiting for the houses to arrive from England was nerve-wracking. I thought of everything that could go wrong, from the British Customs preventing them from leaving the country, or the French denying them entry. Who is to know what weird laws may exist around the free movement of dolls houses in Europe? Or the van might break down, have multiple punctures or get thoroughly lost en route. Or worst of all it might snow. After all, this was the end of October 2012 and snow in the Czech Republic comes quite often before the start of November.
In the end of course, none of these terrible things happened – other than the intrepid drivers, Paul and Simon, getting lost in the final 50 km of the journey – and at last the van was safely parked up outside my house in the village. I peeked out several times in the night to make sure no one made off with it, complete with its precious load.
The next day the unloading began.
We tried very hard to separate things that were due to be painted from those that had to be sorted, and at the same time leave some space for the painter and carpenter to work.
The houses themselves, which mostly would need deep cleaning, and in some cases, restoring, took up the whole of one corner of the room.
Once everything was in, with the additional help of the excellent Pavel, whose wife Jana had been instrumental in getting the whole project presented to the mayor, it was time to bring in both the painter and the carpenter. My original intention had been for us to paint the shelving and cupboards ourselves when daughter Alison (also known as Butterfly) and I returned to the Czech Republic in the following March, having spent Christmas at home in the UK. But my goodness, am I glad that I changed my mind about that! It would have taken us ages and used up valuable time needed for the essential restoration work on the houses. In the event we only just made it before Small Worlds finally opened to the public on 15th June. But more of that in Part Three of this saga...
As I said in Part One, my first thought on meeting the painter was "John the Baptist!". He had a huge, bushy beard and piercing eyes. He liked to start work at 5am so that he could finish for the day by 11 – after the first day I handed over the keys to him! He worked at great speed so that by the time I dropped in on that first day he had already first-coated a large number of shelves with what I at once realised had been a very poor colour choice on my part.
I had gone for a bluish off-white which was coming up paler and more mauve than I had anticipated and which, together with the white walls, would not really set-off the dolls houses well.
Fortunately it was possible to make a rapid change to a pleasing darkish green – it is in fact the colour of all the exterior doors in my Czech house – and I am delighted with how it has worked out.
Before the ex-BBC archive cupboards could be painted they had to have tops and end bits put on them and this had to be coordinated with the painter's work so that sawdust would not be flying around onto drying paint.
I was very lucky in the workmen I had, who were extremely flexible, and also willing to work at weekends if necessary. The carpenter came and did his job whilst I entertained his small daughter with a jigsaw.....
Then the painter returned to finish off his task.
I had been waiting for the town council to fulfil their promise to put up a metal grille on the front window; there was already one on the back.
When those workmen turned up I also got them to fix the interior blinds which caused some consternation since the instructions were almost incomprehensible. However Czechs have had to make do with so little over the years of communism that once they have firmly told you that the job can't be done at all, they reveal that they are highly skilled at working out ways round any problem and the blinds – a present to the museum from two English friends – finally made it into place above the big windows.
Both window-sills are very wide, in typical Czech fashion, and I already knew that I wanted to use the rear one as an extra display place for houses, with the front one acting as a showcase for the museum, with a regularly changing display to reflect the seasons. This has proved to be very popular in the village – again more of that in Part Three.
Once everything had been adapted and painted it was time for me to head back to England for Christmas and a few months with the grandchildren. The workmen had been so brilliant that I set off knowing that when we returned in March 2013 everything was in place for me and Butterfly to get down to putting up shelves, unpacking, sorting, setting up workstations and then, finally, starting the necessary restoration work on the houses. Unlike with most building projects, full-size or miniature, way more had been achieved in the time than I had anticipated.
The break in England sped past – clouded by the fact that we had expected that when we returned to the Czech Republic in the spring, we would have already sold our house in the UK and all our stuff would have gone into storage. The house sale fell through and so we were more or less back to square one. But everything was in the hands of our highly competent estate agent so we put the worries behind us and focused on the mammoth task ahead.
The museum was so far still without a name. I had struggled for months to come up with something that would work in both Czech and English, and possibly also in German, without having to be translated. I thought we had hit on the answer when "Lilliput" flashed into my mind. (Had the museum been in England I'm afraid I would have been tempted to name it Gilliput.....). Gulliver's Travels is known all over Europe and the only difference in the word Lilliput in both Czech and German is that in neither language is the middle "L" doubled. But I was warned off this by a German friend who said it was now regarded as a non-PC term in German because it had in the past been used for people of restricted growth. It turned out that this was the case in Czech as well so this name went out of the window.
I put out a plea for help to all my English-speaking Czech friends and also on a website I belong to for people collecting the Chalet School series of books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. (Collecting such Girls Own literature is another passion of mine). And it was from here that help finally came with not just a name but also, in the end, the publicity blurb that would feature on the leaflets.
"Small Worlds" encompassed all that I wanted – the idea that miniatures are not just for girls and that the museum would not consist solely of dolls houses but also other tiny items that would appeal to boys, girls and adults. Both that and the accompanying description came from Ruth Allen, also known as abbeybufo, and I am deeply grateful to her for capturing exactly what was needed. The only downside to the name is that the Czech had to be a translation after all. But Malé světy is a phrase much used in Czech and I soon got accustomed to using the two names in tandem.
Once we had a name my talented daughter-in-law, Laura, could get on with designing the logo and banner that we would use on all the publicity material and once again I was delighted with the result.
To see all of this you will have to visit my blog – my technical skills failed to get them into a format to be included in this article!
When Alison and I arrived back in a freezing, snow-covered Bavorov we first of all tried to create some sort of order by getting the tall shelves up – more help from the indefatigable Jana and Pavel – and pushing the archive cupboards, from henceforth to be known as display counters, into approximate positions.
At this point it really felt as if we would be living in a state of permanent chaos!
Then Butterfly put her considerable organising skills into setting up two work stations – there is no way we can share a work table – and making sure that each was supplied with the basic equipment we would both need.
Between the two she used what would later be part of the display furniture to house all the materials that we would have to share.
The room divider that had come from my English bedroom was pushed against a wall. In the future it would once again be used as a divider, this time to separate the planned Dětský koutek – the Children's Corner – from the rest of the room.
One of the most pleasing things to me about this project has been the way it has been possible to reuse furniture from the house that we were selling in England. Most of it would have had to be sold or dumped when we moved since we were down-sizing to a considerably smaller home. So when I had the idea of using all my bedroom storage, which was rather idiosyncratic, for both storage and display in the museum, and when I realised that all our very tall, deep bookshelves could also be used, I was delighted. The crowning pleasure came when I was looking at the BBC archive cupboards one day and realised that the sides were panelled and that they would look good laid down on the floor and therefore could be used for the main display units. I hate disposing of things and to be able to reuse the furniture in this way has given me great satisfaction. It has saved a fair amount of money as well!
Once things were more or less in place, I could begin sorting the many shoeboxes into the storage drawers. But before the actual sorting I needed to divide up the space. I had recoiled in horror at the price of drawer dividers and decided to make my own by cutting up fruit boxes from the local market. Easier said than done. I swear that fruit boxes are made much stronger than a lot of modern furniture. Many hours, and sore wrists, later, I had some suitable strips of cardboard which could be interlocked and fitted into the drawers.
Then the sorting could begin.
Some items were fairly easy – windows, doors, fireplaces, flooring for example. But the endless shoeboxes full of furniture took a considerable time and worst of all were the many boxes full of odds and ends that I had collected over the years because "they might come in useful one day".
Some of the tinier items were taken home to be sorted in more comfort there, thus rendering the sofa area of the living room unusable for several days.
In the meantime Butterfly began on the first house. The Walmer Victorian house had been dismantled for the journey over and I thought it would be a positive step to get it ready for display quite early on.
We had bought it in Washington DC when we spent the summer there on a house exchange in 1981 and it was due for a complete make-over.
That holiday had been a complete delight – on the first day there we discovered that our neighbours were keen miniaturists and from then on the holiday was a roaring success. They actually owned the same Walmer house that we ended up buying. We were able to visit the Walmer factory with them and they kindly lent us a house so that we could begin collecting furniture for it and seeing how it looked in the rooms. At that time the hobby was far more advanced in the USA than in the UK and we couldn't believe the range of items available.
Three flatpacks flew back to England with us and great was our consternation to find only two of them on the luggage carousel at Heathrow Airport. The airline helpfully phoned back to the US and we were reassured to hear that the third flatpack would arrive on the next plane, which it duly did.
In between sorting and cursing the amount of stuff I was having to deal with, I enjoyed papering some of the Walmer and helping Butterfly source beautiful papers on the internet.
My goodness, how the hobby has changed over the years! Time was, I had to haunt DIY stores to source samples of wallpaper with tiny patterns, or collect wrapping paper with suitably sized designs for papering a house. Nowadays you just go on-line.....
I still had quantities of paper collected over the years and so not everything had to be printed off from the internet. We found excellent designs for most of the rooms but after much searching we still had nothing good enough for the floors in the main rooms of the house. By then, however, Butterfly had developed a new skill whilst renovating what was probably the ugliest house in the collection – the bright orange bungalow.
How this skill was put to good use both in the bungalow and the Walmer will be revealed in Part Three, along with much else leading up to the final opening of the museum on June 15th 2013.