Small Worlds Museum in the Czech Republic, Part Three: "Are we nearly there?" "Yes we are!"
by Gil Bomber
At times, following our return to the Czech Republic in March of last year, it felt as if we would never be ready for the official opening on 15th June. To make matters worse, I had agreed to open, for one day only, on May 11th, when there would be one of the occasional local farmers' markets in an adjacent building. And this is what the place looked like!
Although many of the houses would still require substantial work, we thought we could have enough of them ready to give an idea of what the museum would eventually be like. It would also give us the chance to get some experience of handling a number of people at once. In addition, my daughter Alison would no longer be in the Czech Republic in June; I was to ferry her and her crafting supplies back to the UK as soon as our one day opening was over. It seemed a little unfair, after all the work she was putting in, that she should not see at least some of the enjoyment of visitors to Small Worlds.
So our aim was to get as many of the houses as possible into a reasonable state to display, and to leave the museum more or less ready to open not long after I returned to the CR, after dropping her back home. It was, in the event, just as well that we more or less succeeded in this because a sudden health scare whilst I was back in the UK meant that I had to stay there an extra ten days. This meant it was cutting it extremely fine to get back in time for the planned opening on 15th June.
But I am jumping ahead of myself. There was much to do before there could be any talk of opening anything. We first of all listed all the houses that only needed cleaning, and a small amount of remedial work. Then we noted which houses needed so much attention that they would have to go on display labelled accordingly; there was no point in trying to tackle them before next year.
We were left with a group of houses needing substantial work that we felt could be done in the time available to us. You have already heard a bit in Part Two about the Victorian Walmer and the orange tea chest bungalow. To these we added the Cape Cod, what became Mouse Mansion,
the Thatched Cottage, the French Patisserie (which was scheduled to replace the Dutch House which had been on loan to the town museum), the bright blue gloss painted Edwardian:
and the 1970s Lundby whose felt carpets had been ravaged by moth.
Fortunately we were not entirely without help! My sister-in-law Mette, a very talented miniaturist who may be familiar to some of you from her regular articles in the magazine Dolls House and Miniature Scene, promised to come over for a few days to lend us her sewing and gluing fiddly items skills. Neither Alison nor I can wield a needle to save our lives. She duly arrived and spent the whole four days sewing tiny seams, and creating bedding and curtains. She said when she left she never wanted to work with shot silk again – but we think the cushions in the Colonial Bungalow were well worth it!
Apart from the highly skilled Mette, I have a multi-talented friend in Holland, a retired art and craft teacher, who can turn her hand to anything, large or small, and she too promised to come and spend some days with us. Irmel came in May and brought along a friend of hers who had never worked with miniatures, but who was able to respond to any request with skill and alacrity. More of them later.
In addition, there were a number of Czech friends offering help. We drew up yet another list, this time of helpers, labelling them "unskilled", "semi-skilled", "skilled" and "highly skilled" and matched them with the tasks that needed doing. Our noble "unskilled " friends found themselves relegated to cleaning tasks, removing cobwebs, washing down paint work and, as they became more skilled, sometimes even being allowed to strip wallpaper!
All this help left Alison and me free to get on with the more tricky tasks.
Alison focused on the Walmer, which we had dismantled for the journey, thus making it much easier to decorate. Most of the rooms needed new wallpaper and flooring and we trawled the internet for these. After much searching Alison decided she could find nothing good enough for the drawing room and the dining room, nor for one of the upstairs rooms. Fortunately however, by this time she was also working on the Colonial Bungalow, formerly known as "that orange thing" and whilst doing this had decided to make the "wooden" floor for the verandah. This taught her that she could use this skill in the Walmer too.
I was at this point going to launch into many photos and descriptions of how she did it but then I re-read her blog post on the work she did in Small Worlds last year. I really do not think that I can improve on her own words. So you will find all the details and many photos on her Words and Pictures blog. Here too you can read about her work on the Cape Cod.
So what was I doing in the meantime, you may well ask? Well it seemed like all the fiddly stuff .... trying to construct a canopy for the French patisserie (a fail), cleaning and redding up all the other houses that were going on display, including trying to reduce the rust on the sad baby Triang,
trying to make Jenny's Home join up in a coherent manner, (almost impossible unless you don't mind having outer doors opening onto a dangerous drop from the upper floors),
making a spa colonnade.....
This latter was at the behest of an elderly Czech friend who, on seeing the empty conservatory that had once stood next to the Walmer, exclaimed "Oh but that reminds me of Mariánské Lázně!" (better known to some as Marienbad). So what could I do but try to make it in miniature for her?
And before someone points it out – yes I know that the wisteria flowers are actually Britains' lupins or delphiniums hanging upside down. But I was in a hurry. The wisteria indoors was actually inspired by the conservatory at the venue of my nephew's wedding reception a few years ago. Threaded through with fairy lights, it was completely enchanting.
I was also busy, in my spare moments, trying to finalise the publicity material and get it all translated and then printed. For such tasks I am very fortunate to have Czech friends who give their time unstintingly. It is no easy task, for example, to get all the detailed information on the houses into Czech for the labels, because some of the terminology simply doesn't exist. Such translators have to be both patient and creative and I am deeply indebted to them.
I was also much enjoying turning a rather nondescript little house into Mouse Mansion. The large family of mice was a bequest from a friend and they mean a lot to me. So it was particularly satisfying to create a spacious home for them. You can read about their arrival and other goings-on in my blog. Their adventures continue.....
When Irmel arrived from Holland, together with her friend Bep, the activities became even more frenzied. Knowing Irmel's ability to turn her hand to anything – together with her husband she has renovated and restored two full-size houses, one dating from the 1600s – Alison and I had begun to put anything too tricky for us onto an "Irmel list". But since the major task ahead of her was to work out a way of rethatching the large English cottage, and then doing it, it was a blessing that Bep, whose skills were unknown to us, turned out to be the sort of person that one could just outline a task to and off she would go and complete it. In between helping Irmel with the thatching, Bep sewed ballet dresses for the forthcoming dance school, restrung miniature puppets, and washed and successfully renovated tiny dolls clothes which I had been ready to sling out.
Again you can read about the thatching in all its gory details in the blog post "To thatch or not to thatch" – I say gory details with purpose since it was probably the most thought-provoking and messiest job that happened over these weeks.
Irmel and Bep returned to Holland, leaving just a few days before the one day opening on May 11th. More furniture and house shifting took place and then, suddenly, we had all the houses more or less in place, all the labels printed – Czech on one side, English on the other – and publicity material was slowly being delivered to the tourist offices in towns close by.
I deliberately chose not to go in for extensive publicity in the first year of opening since I had no idea how things would pan out if hordes of people descended on me at once.
The one day opening was a huge success; the back door of the hall where the farmers' market is held opens directly onto my front entrance and so a constant flow of people came through.
Alison and I, and my friend Jana who has helped so much throughout the process, fielded many questions and also promised the children who came that when Small Worlds opened properly on June 15th there would be a Children's Corner where they could touch and play to their heart's content.
I then ferried Alison back to England, only to get stuck there when my legs suddenly swelled up alarmingly. I was able to get back to Bavorov, however, in time for the Official Opening on June 15th
and in time to set up the promised Children's Corner.
The summer season that followed was lovely. I have been amazed by the brilliant behaviour of Czech children and by the interest shown by the adults. I have learned that adults are shy to write in the guest book, but that children love doing it, often with drawings as well. I have been delighted by many gifts of small items that people suddenly remember they have at home and which "might be useful for you". I have been pleased that my decision to go for a voluntary entrance donation rather than a fixed charge, has paid off. Enough came in to cover the (very low) wage of my 16 year old helper in August.
I have thoroughly enjoyed thinking up and then creating a changing window display. (I apologise for the quality of the photos – I still have not worked out how to take them without reflections and getting a picture of the photographer in there as well!) Our first was a woodland scene,
then an English village square.
I followed this up with a "Where shall we spend our holidays?"
and then ended with a display of breadbins to show that one does not need a dolls house to make miniature room settings.
If I do get round to running workshops in this coming season, I shall probably start with a room box, either in a breadbin, or one made to measure out of foamboard.
To my amazement, over 800 visitors came through during the two and a half months we were open, and this was without any great attempt at publicity. Fortuitously however, just after we opened the popular TV programme "Toulova Kamera" (Touring Camera) visited the local castle and our village church and the cameraman was persuaded to drop into Small Worlds. Blink and you missed me on the actual programme, but it was enough to bring in quite a few extra visitors.
So what for the coming year? Alison and I will be heading back to Bavorov at Easter and since I have managed to acquire four new houses in the past few months our first task will be to make a quart out of a pint pot in order to fit them in! We are going to have to completely redesign the layout, not only to cater for the extra houses, but also to display some of the model cars I have been acquiring.. ...
Just before the official opening, my friend Jana came round with her school class to test out how it would work with a large group of children. After they got back to their classroom I asked her to get them to make suggestions of what they would like to see in Small Worlds. "Horses" said some of the girls – so I obliged.
"More for boys" said the boys and this is still work in progress – though I have made a start with the bicycle shop.
My next plan is to use the model cars to create some sort of vintage car workshop. But this all needs space and that is very much at a premium at the moment.
I am hoping that there is a small room in the same building that I can rent, so that I can shuffle houses in and out with ease. And one of last year's visitors made the useful suggestion that I could loan one or two houses to museums in towns around. There is already one in Bavorov's own small museum (100 visitors last season as against my 800) and if I have houses in the bigger towns then this would relieve some of my space problems and also encourage visitors.
And apart from creating the new layout there is still a long list of houses to be dealt with – an Olde Englishe Pub, the Dance Academy, an Edwardian Department Store, a Shakespearian Pub and Theatre for starters ...... So watch this space and maybe Rebecca will invite me back to update you at the end of the summer season. In any case you can always keep abreast of happenings on my blog Cestina's Dolls Houses – when I get time to write it!