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It’s Small… but is it a Model or a Miniature?

Collections people, like collections managers and registrars, sometimes ponder (and debate for hours) the strangest things. Do we use Last Name, First Name or First Name Last Name? Inches or Centimeters? H x W x D or L x W x H ?  Organize by object type or by culture? If you have any idea of what I’m talking about, you probably should work in the collections department of a museum, if you don’t already.

The most recent discussion in the Ethnology & History lab at the University of Alaska Museum of the North surrounds the difference between “models” and “miniatures” and which is the preferred terminology for most of the small versions of full-sized things we have in the collection. Della Hall, Ethnology’s skilled and knowledgeable curatorial assistant, had many good points to counter some of my own.

As with many debates surrounding collections-issues, we started by looking at a couple of nomenclature books. Chenhalls didn’t even have “model” as a classification. Next step? Google it! Nothing definitive pops up. Dictionary? Of course!

Miniature: noun: A copy or model that represents or reproduces something in a greatly reduced size; adjective: Being on a small or greatly reduced scale.  

Yes… now we’re getting somewhere. And now the other?

Model: noun: A small object, usually built to scale, that represents in detail another, often larger object.

Okay, when they use one word to define the other, I know we’re working on a good problem of distinction, but one that when determined, will prove a valuable standard. So after further discussion and examples, here’s what Della and I have decided will be our definition and standard for usage.

MINIATURE: All objects in the collection that are simply small versions of their full-sized counterparts. For our Common Name field in the database, we might find examples such as: Kayak, Miniature; Canoe, Miniature; Cabin, Miniature; Snowshoes, Miniature; etc.

MODEL: Any objects in the collection that are intended to be exact replicas of their full-size counterparts, at a pre-determined and standardized ratio of miniaturization (i.e., “scale models”). This will likely be items that are manufactured, and the scale verified and consistent across the entire piece, such as: Train Engine, Model; Airplane, Model; Automobile, Model; Sternwheeler Boat, Model; etc.

While this may not end up being a perfect system, and certainly seems to go against our vernacular (i.e., “model kayak,” “model totem pole,” “model sled,” it seems to be based on solid rationale and can be duplicated time and again. It could be argued that the hand-made miniature kayaks that were produced by master Native artists are nearly-perfect replicas of the full-sized items in our collections, and very possibly scale models of them. However, it would be challenging for us to make that determination for each and every piece. And it would lead us to inconsistencies between those items that are scale models and those that are not but are the same object-type (i.e., some kayaks might be models, while others will be miniatures).

Here’s a selection of images to illustrate this standard. All photos copyright UAMN.

As always, I welcome feedback regarding this standard!

Miniature (working) sewing machine.

Miniature (working) sewing machine.

Model Alaska Railroad car.

Model Alaska Railroad car.

Model train.

Model train.

Miniature library.

Miniature library.

Miniature kayak.

Miniature kayak.

Miniature fish wheel.

Miniature fish wheel.

Model airplane.

Model airplane.

Model warehouse.

Model warehouse.

Miniature Aleut barabara.

Miniature Aleut barabara.

Miniature boat made from baleen.

Miniature boat made from baleen.

Miniature fish trap.

Miniature fish trap.

Miniature sled.

Miniature sled.

Miniature harpoon and float.

Miniature harpoon and float.

Miniature totem pole.

Miniature totem pole.

Miniature cache.

Miniature cache.

Miniature umiak from Point Hope.

Miniature umiak from Point Hope.

2 responses to “It’s Small… but is it a Model or a Miniature?

  1. I think that’s an intelligent distinction, however I wonder if it creates an unconscious hierarchy between mechanized Colonial society & indigenous forms of representation. It seems like all Native handcrafts will be by this definition only miniature, even the carefully-crafted umiak that models all relevant aspects of construction and use.

    • Good point Alex, and one we’ll need to toss around. When we have experts who examine these types of items, whether they are the miniaturized fish traps, kayaks, or clothing, an appropriate question will be to see if they appear to be appropriate scale and proportions to their full-sized cousins. Thanks for the input!

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