"The toy world presents a projection of the world of everyday life" (Stewart 1993, 57).

Miniature worlds are the ultimate extension of miniaturisation and perhaps its unconscious goal all along. They exist the world over, and by reacting against the physical impossibility of shrinking the human body they perhaps represent the ultimate triumph of humans over scale. These micropolises are curated, are often open to the public as sources of entertainment, and should they close down, have a level of exchange value. It is very unlikely that a miniature world would occur in a purely archaeological context (i.e. discarded and 'lost' and then rediscovered and recorded). However, as the ultimate in the process of miniaturisation, they offer chances to survey much of the thinking behind the phenomenon.

When researching my dissertation I visited two miniature worlds:

Miniature World, Victoria, British Columbia

Describing itself as "a world class miniature fantasy world," Miniature World is situated on the ground floor of a nineteenth century building in downtown Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. It is designed to be walked through following a one-way path that snakes past a series of dioramas. These begin in the darkness of outer space, before moving to a series of historical displays, a fantasy section and finally a number of dolls houses. The historical displays include several depictions of warfare from ancient to modern times ("Fields of Glory"). A large diorama features a rail journey across Canada, from Vancouver to the Maritimes. Another represents a street in nineteenth century Vancouver. Other dioramas include a circus, "Olde London Towne" (c.1670) and twentieth century London. The fantasy section includes several imagined nursery rhyme/fairy story dioramas. The dolls houses are divided between those viewed through windows and those where exterior walls have been omitted to allow views of the interior spaces.

During my visit in July 2010, visitors consisted mostly of small groups of all ages and ethnicities, with a mixture of obvious tourists and less obvious locals. Most visitors passed quickly through the historical sections, pausing for the shortest time in front of the scenes of warfare. Although these may have meant more to adult visitors when the attraction was originally created, to most young people in Canada war is something their great grandparents experienced, and is as remote to them as ancient Egypt. Women lingered longest amongst the dollshouses, and families amongst the “modern” displays. Children seemed mostly uninterested by the fantasy displays, the result probably of far more realistic TV representations. However most children pressed buttons if these were present. Older women and obvious tourists paused longest in front of the historical displays.

Since the scenarios are all meant to be accurately representational, all the models are custom made. Each diorama is of a different scale and is separated from the visitor behind glass, but some have buttons which when pressed cause lightbulbs to be illuminated etc.

I felt that Miniature World was a very good example of its kind, and to be well worth the admission cost.

Osoyoos Desert Model Railroad, British Columbia:

Located in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Osoyoos, in the southern interior of British Columbia, and touted as "The biggest little European Railroad in Canada," Osoyoos Desert Model Railway takes up the first floor of a modern utilitarian structure. It is based almost entirely on the products of Märklin, a German manufacturer of HO gauge model railways. As such it reflects mostly twentieth century European originals, though with appropriate earlier architectural survivals. Rolling stock is again mostly twentieth century, with a minority of steam-powered traction.

The visitor is free to wander in the space between large base-boards that not only carry scenery and trackwork, but also a large number of individual “scenes” “acted out” by some 18,000 miniature figures. The "world" changes at intervals from day to night. Each scene is both self-contained (e.g. a couple dressed in swimsuits being chased by a goose, a group of down-and-outs, some old people on a bench) but also connected to everything else. The layout encompasses both summer and winter, urban and rural environments. The detail is semi-realistic, the scenery having been created to fit the railway layout, but all the individual components being based on off-the-shelf plastic construction kits, and the figures ready-made, but hand-painted, plastic originals. The layout is separated from the visitor by glass, and there is no interactivity.

When I visited the model railway in August 2010, visitors were mostly people travelling through or vacationing in Osoyoos, which is both a vacation destination and a wayside town astride Highway 3. Locals tend to visit the railway to accompany visitors. All ages were represented, but there were few older visitors, and the attention of the youngest tended to quickly wander. The most vocally enthusiastic visitors were middle-aged adults.

Small differences and similarities

It is notable that although their basic premise is different (one is a single, continuous railway layout, the other is a series of disconnected dioramas) both miniature worlds included a number of common features.

Both include linking model railways and highways. Both included fairgrounds and circuses.

Both feature an artist painting a nude model. Both include a conflagration.

Both include industrial plants, docks, building construction, and underground mining. Drinking and carousing are included in several scenes, as are automobile accidents and a derailment.

Both include red light districts.

It would be interesting to see if these common elements occur in other miniature worlds. Some elements perhaps represent common fears (fire, road accidents) that people feel mastery over when they are reduced in size. Others probably enable us to take in the whole of a scene full of interest and detail (a brightly-coloured circus or fairground for example) that might tend to overwhelm us at full scale.

Some miniature scenes allow us to be voyeurs (the nude model, a woman taking a shower, a nudist beach), others to smile (the scenes of tiny, tipsy drinkers, dancers, courting couples) or experience an unfamiliar environment (a red light district, an industrial plant). Nostalgia and recognition are important elements – we spy hikers, family groups, workers, police in various roles, elderly people being elderly people, people relaxing in cafés, bars, parks and gardens, and enjoy their familiarity.

But perhaps most of our enjoyment of and interest in these miniature worlds is about feeling big, about feeling powerful (able to turn day into night for example), untouchable (the events happening in the model can't hurt us), all-seeing (like a god, we can see though walls, can witness things happening behind closed doors, or in places we would normally not go), about being curious and invading other people's privacy without guilt or embarrassment. We can also travel effortlessly in time and space.

They may be small worlds, but they engender big responses.


Stewart, Susan, 1993. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press.