Exquisite Art on a Small Scale: Mini Time Machine Museum creates big fun

By Valerie Vinyard

The Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures is a playground for the imagination.

Every year, about 40,000 people visit the Midtown museum, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary in September. The board-only nonprofit organization was founded by Patricia and Walter Arnell, who moved to Tucson in 1979. Patricia Arnell used her extensive private collection to start the museum.

Gentry Spronken, director of marketing and communications for the museum, says Patricia believes miniatures transport people to different places and times.

Spronken often hears comments from visitors like, “This is so much more than I thought it would be,” when discussing the quality of the collection and the building.

A sprawling 15,000-square-foot building houses the museum, with permanent and temporary exhibits taking up two-thirds of the space. The building was created from the ground up by Tucson firm Swaim Associates Architects.

“Our focus is to show miniatures are an art form,” Spronken says. “It’s not just dollhouses.”

Although there are plenty of said dollhouses. In all, about 500 dollhouses and room boxes span the three galleries. The museum’s oldest piece is from 1742, a Nuremburg Kitchen from Germany. Of course, there are other exhibits, including a fascinating display of tiny, painstakingly designed food.

“There’s an inherent attraction to miniatures,” says Spronken, citing puppies and babies as real-life examples. “It’s a really different way to look at art in a really fun way.”

Audio tours can be accessed on people’s phones, and there’s a docent-led tour at 1 p.m. the days the museum is open.

The third gallery, called “Exploring the World,” focuses on contemporary miniatures. This is where scale is important, which refers to the ratio between the size of a full-size object and its miniature version. Many use a 1:12 scale, where 1 inch equals 1 foot.

Kathy Grissom is the Southern Arizona contact for National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts, an organization that promotes miniatures. She visited the Mini Time Machine a few times while living in Las Vegas. She moved to Tucson about two years ago, and now she makes it to the museum three to four times a year.

“It’s something that can appeal to the youngest and the oldest people,” Grissom says. “It offers a lot of eye candy.”

To encourage younger generations, the museum regularly hosts programs for schoolkids. Tiny Tales for Tots, a monthly storybook program, is included with admission. Kids Create is a monthly drop-in program the second Saturday of the month.

Grissom, who’s almost 70, says she has been making “little things” since she was very young.

“It’s fun. I do a lot of research,” she says. “There’s a lot of history, a lot of things you can learn. The friendships you can make.

“They don’t realize how much study can be involved in it and how much learning can be in it.”

And there is quite a bit of history, dating back to when archeologists in Egypt discovered wooden miniatures of farm animals and carts from 5,000 B.C. In its early days, Spronken says miniatures mainly were displayed when the wealthy entertained in their homes. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that miniatures became more accessible and popular for play.

Longtime Tucsonan Judy Michelet is part of the “Wednesday Witches,” a group of eight women who takes turns meeting at each other’s houses. They group has been meeting for 30-some years.

Michelet has owned Café a la Cart, a full-service restaurant located on the grounds of the Tucson Museum of Art, for about 25 years.

In her East Side home, Michelet has two big dollhouses—38 inches wide and 30 inches tall—that she built from scratch. Her works have been displayed in museums, and she’s even made a little money by selling some of her creations.

Michelet says they sit around a dining room table, enjoy a light lunch and work on their miniatures.

“It’s kind of like photography or golf; it’s just a hobby,” says Michelet, who’s also a member of the museum. “So many of us started so young with having a dollhouse. It’s a nice, little hobby if you have good skills.”

One of Michelet’s first toys was a tin dollhouse. She and her sisters played with it while growing up in Northern Indiana.

“It’s not only for adults, but it’s very much something that a family can do,” Michelet says. “I’ve found as soon as I go into my workroom and sit down, once I start dealing with those fantasy things, it’s a big stress reliever.”