In a universe constantly expanding, size is everything. Cars add on axels, sandwiches are heaped with more tiers, and houses become mansions. One mansion in Amsterdam challenges this obsession with enlargement. The Mouse Mansion (Het Muizenhuis) constructed by Karina Schaapman (2014) stands only three meters tall in a glass case on the children’s floor of OBA (Amsterdam Central Library). The structure is a rustic yet glorified dollhouse for fictional toy mice characters Sam and Julia and their families. With modest grace, Schaapman lures the imagination of her audience—the smallest of the library’s visitors.
Schaapman tactfully addresses her little viewers by creating an elaborate microcosm of their world. The work boasts over one hundred rooms, each overflowing with miniature replicas of real-world furnishings and ephemera. On first glance, the piece is a kaleidoscope of colors, textures, fabrics, name brands, and mouse furs. The unimaginable number of things mirrors the limitlessness of a child’s imagination. For children and parents, there is always something new to see: a tiny jar of Nutella they hadn’t noticed, a wheel made out of a button, or an entire room they had previously overlooked. The act of discovery engages and empowers the viewer. Children find that their world, here mimicked before them, is full of just as many marvels and details to be uncovered with close inspection. Yet children aren’t known for long, stationary meditation. Schaapman satisfies the short attention span of her viewers by saturating the piece with intriguing details that can be consumed in quick bites. Each room, though densely packed with objects, is quite small—only about 15cm each—allowing children to move on to the next room as soon as they are bored and then continue jumping from room to room. They can leave, run around, read a book, and still feel motivated to return to uncover something new and exciting. The work is extremely successful at engaging the imagination of its audience and motivating them to see the library as a space of creativity and artistic depth.
The sculpture emulates its environment; it is not only a microcosm of the modern world, but it also represents the library itself. Though the books may be only for Dutch readers, the library is for everyone. The restaurant, sprawling views of the city, and various art installations like the Mansion welcome the entire assortment of Amsterdam visitors to the space. The Mansion offers the openness and acceptance that the city is so famous for, speaking and squeaking to audiences no matter what language they read—or if they can read at all. People from all walks of life are welcome to view the piece for free, without needing to pay an entrance fee or even obtain a library card. Any child can sit or stand on the red and white plastic seats that surround the piece and press his or her face into the glass. Like the pages of a book, the creative world is revealed before their eyes. But it is also shared among many eyes. The library is an organism for sharing; the same books are read and beloved by thousands of people. The Mansion generates the same practice. Children run up to the piece, pointing excitedly with sugar-filled enthusiasm to show their parents, siblings, or friends some little detail they discovered. The discoveries are electrifying. In my experience, children have had no qualms sharing their findings with anyone in their vicinity—loudly and with explosive smiles. Schaapman arouses a meaningful shared experience that brings art to life. The library is a seemingly inanimate space that, through the stories and knowledge in its books, evokes vivacious movement and thought. The Mansion functions the same way. The mice are posed gesturally, as if caught in the middle of recognizable actions—a stillness that evokes motion. As the gears of a child’s mind are ignited and begin churning, sparks flicker and dance before this magical house of imagination.
Yet still, the presentation and size of the Mouse Mansion create problems for viewers. The glass case is smeared with the smudges of small handprints and nose grease. These, combined with the glare of the molecular-shaped lighting hanging above, make seeing every imaginative detail quite difficult. The light casts particularly strong reflections on the highest floors of the house. While the unreachable height of these uppermost tiers is inspiring, it is also alienating and frustrating to children and shorter visitors who can’t enjoy their entire splendor. The limitations of being a child in a grown-up’s world become glaringly obvious. To an extent, children identify with the mice as cute and lovable, but creatures overlooked and condescended—posed in the world by an adult hand.
Ultimately, Schaapman’s hand works delicately and meticulously to convey a multi-tiered palace of imaginative possibility. Her range of materials and diversity of theme expand the scope of such a physically small piece. And while its mesmerizing levels inspire me to explore every floor of the library, they make it hard to ever leave the children’s section.