The Miniature World That Makes Everyone Feel Small
Massive dioramas full of miniature people, like Spain’s Jaca Citadel Military Miniatures Museum or Germany’s Miniatur Wunderland, tend to attract a mix families and psychedelic enthusiasts. Gulliver’s Gate, a 49,000-square-ft installation that just became New York City’s latest major tourist attraction, is the newest, largest, and most interactive collection of tiny things in the world and, yes, it’s going to attract the very high, the very short, and the parents of the very short. This diverse audience will have one thing in common, after walking up 44th street off of Times Square, where the handsy muppets are oversized, they will all make the same half-joke: I feel like a giant.
Staffers at the attraction confirmed, verbally and via eye-roll, that this immediate reaction is universal. They seemed exasperated by it even before the grand opening. Few of them, however, seemed aware that the joke not only has a second half, but will ultimately turn out to be on the tourists. Sure, visitors to the $40-million project feel large for the first five minutes, but then a realization creeps in. The truth is this: Gulliver’s Gate makes people feel very big for a second and very small for a very long time.
Did I feel, having just strolled under the lights of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar and a gentleman’s club, huge looking down on a 1:87 scale model of New York? Sure. For a moment I was Godzilla and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I didn’t feel the urge to stomp around on William F. Lamb’s Empire State Building. Then I realized that the model was too big for me to totally take in. Then I started to sympathize with the 1:87 figurine of a woman strolling through Times Square and also the1:87 figurine of a girl who dropped her purse on the Subway tracks. Then I felt really, really insignificant.
Perspective is a bitch and Gulliver’s Gate soaks visitors in the stuff — and not just because of the exhibit’s size, which is fairly staggering.
Weirdly, Gulliver’s Gate lacks chronological consistency. Different makers working on the exhibit were given artistic license to time jump. The result? Zeus occupies ancient Greece, The Beatles stroll down Abbey Road, white people queue for $800 “Hamilton” tickets on Broadway, and visitors are forcefully pulled from the present. Not only are guests forced to confront their physical tininess, they’re forced to confront it within the context of history. If each scene is a snapshot, it’s clear that each life is no longer than the pulse of a flash.
As if to drive this point home, Gulliver’s Gate features a fully functional and intentionally exposed control room and a life-size 3D printer that shrinks patrons down to scale models — there is an intended educational component. The world, visitors learn, is controlled by outside forces beyond their control. Their only choice in the face of this realization: Exist or don’t. There are no revolutions in Gulliver’s Gate.
Historically, the point of diorama attraction has been to simulate travel. With its 1,000 miniature moving trains, 12,000 wagons, 10,000 automobiles, 100,000 tiny people, and 300-plus scenes played out across 50 nations, Gulliver’s Gate nails this function. And, impressively, it doesn’t push the “it’s a small world after all” narrative. Instead, it features two women getting held up at gunpoint as well as a snaking depiction of the Great Wall. It is both very general and very specific, which is to say that it effectively miniaturizes life. It is not a cruel piece of art, but it does represent counterprogramming to Madame Tussaud’s around the corner. If the moral of the older attraction, which draws some 15 million visitors annually, is that everyone is approachable, the moral of the newer attraction is that everyone might be approachable, but you’ll never find them anyway so it doesn’t much matter.
For the low price of $49 a visitor to the exhibit can leave a likeness in the public display. This feels like a way to profiteer off narcissists, but maybe it’s more of a pointed punchline. People who come to feel big are rendered smaller and slightly poorer.