Small Wonder

The Hyde Park Miniature Museum has been dredged out of mothballs, but will it find a permanent home before time runs out?

"You can't get away from it," says Fruit. "And you can't just dump it in the trash pile." She does admit to a little resentment of the responsibility. "But," she says, "Helen takes it out of that range."

Helen is Helen Winkler Fosdick, the sister of former Menil Collection director Paul Winkler and the Hyde Park Miniature Museum's most ardent champion. Fosdick was a volunteer at the museum in the '70s, and she helped dismantle it in 1994. She worked almost daily on the reinstallation of the museum this time around -- painting shelves, hauling boxes, and occasionally assuaging Davis's temper and cooling simmering sibling rivalries.

"When a lot of people didn't understand the Hyde Park Miniature Museum, she did," says Brazos Projects director Karl Kilian. "She's a great understander of the sincere gesture, and she is able to convey it to other people without being didactic."

Smalley encapsulated: The nubs of his draftsman's pencils.
Deron Neblett
Smalley encapsulated: The nubs of his draftsman's pencils.
One of his recycled bomber-windshield bouquets.
Deron Neblett
One of his recycled bomber-windshield bouquets.

Davis and Fosdick together in the museum remind one of an old married couple. Davis is always grousing about the hyperefficient Fosdick moving his stuff. But every night when she sweeps up, she saves the dustpan for Davis to inspect, to make sure that none of the Hyde Park Miniature Museum has gotten mixed in with the dust it collected in its exile. "Even the tiniest piece is part of the whole psyche of D.D. Smalley," she says.

Fosdick's hope is the same as that of Davis and his sisters. "Perhaps Houston can get it together to raise enough money to find a permanent location for this," she says. At a glance, the museum is a cousin to other quirky Houston landmarks like the Orange Show and the Beer Can and Flower Man houses. But while the Orange Show Foundation looks after its namesake and the Beer Can House, and Cleveland "The Flower Man" Turner still lives in his florid abode, the Hyde Park has no permanent home. It's an interesting rock still lying on the side the road.

To Susanne Theis, the Hyde Park is the über-museum, "the purest expression of what a museum was ever intended to be." Theis calls it a Wunderkammer, a German word that translates as "wonder cabinet." In the Renaissance, and possibly as far back as Roman times, before the idea of modern museums had evolved, nobles and rich merchants often had curiosity cabinets, which they would display to their friends and business acquaintances. These proto-curators had much the same approach as Smalley: If there was a tale to be told about something, anything, into the Wunderkammer it would go.

When Theis got the phone call from then-Menil director Winkler in 1994 telling her that the museum was threatened with oblivion, she rallied the forces at her disposal. After Theis obtained a grant from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston and Harris County to cover moving costs, two dozen Orange Show volunteers labored through the month of August in the sweltering attic, boxing up and removing Smalley's legacy. Great care was taken to preserve every detail. Two documentarians videotaped Davis walking through the museum talking about the collection, and photographer John Lee Simons photographed every inch of the shelves, so that the museum might be reconstructed precisely.

"The amazing thing was that everybody there felt that they were part of a sacred mission," says Theis. "It was clear to me that it was special and really important, and it was crucial that we do right by it and give it a second chance."

Eight years later that second chance came. "When Brazos Projects opened, I was trying to think of something fun and useful to do. It just occurred to me that this was a wonderful thing that was ready to be," says Kilian. In the past, Brazos Projects has exhibited the photography of Cy Twombly and furniture designed by architect Frank Gehry and sculptor Donald Judd. The Hyde Park Miniature Museum represents a step toward outsider art for the exhibition space.

"Maybe some kind of outsider collecting, if you would," hesitates Kilian. "There's just something so charming about it, and so honest."

This museum will not dazzle its beholders at a glance the way a gallery of priceless gems or famous paintings can. The Hyde Park requires a little get-to-know-you period. "If you just give up your resistance when you go into that space, you can't help but be won over by it," says Kilian. "It's like seeing stuff really magic again. It's not cynical; there's something so pure about the experience."

Brazos Projects' previous exhibits have run for only one or two months, but this one will run through the rest of the year. "We knew there was no way people could see it in three or four visits," says Kilian. "You can just marvel at one section of one wall for hours. You get eyestrain."

Though most of the items were valueless in their time, and for that matter for decades after, by now some of them have pretty hefty price tags -- especially in the present day of eBay mania and the Antiques Roadshow. "I hate it that a lot of this stuff is worth money now," Davis says. "I wish it was all just totally worthless. I really do. I'm so tired of it that in Houston, the only reason things are available is because they are worth some money."

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