For the Love of the Little

Maintaining Alexander Girard’s mania for multitudes

Visitors enjoy seeing the work in progress—once they get over the initial surprise of seeing a person, like Drew Miller, inside the set. “I have to relax myself before entering a village,” says Miller, “so that I can carefully tiptoe through the fragile landscape like a gentle giant.”

For thirty-seven years, Multiple Visions: A Common Bond has drawn international visitors and attention to the Museum of International Folk Art. This unique installation of some 10,000 toys and folk art objects from Alexander Girard’s own collection, designed and installed by Girard himself, was a labor of love and a testament to this modern-design master’s attention to the global handmade. Yet from the beginning, it was never clear just how long the exhibition would grace the wing. Museum lore tells us that, depending on whom you asked, the exhibition was meant to be on display somewhere between six months and forever.

The small scale of many objects in the Girard Wing requires a light touch and steady hand. Amy Flowers rethreads the oar on a miniature gondola from the Harbor Scene. For years, this gondolier made do with only one oar, but the other was recently found in the original box in collections storage.

Along with the tremendous gift of Alexander and Susan Girard’s collection comes tremendous responsibility, especially in light of its longevity. While museum staff clean and maintain as needed, the Girard Wing requires periodic refreshing. For the third time since Multiple Visions opened in 1982, museum staff have reevaluated the wing to address matters small and large: from facility issues such as HVAC, lighting, and painting, to the cleaning, documentation, and conservation of individual objects and the displays they inhabit. 

Kneeling inside the Harbor Scene, Amy Flowers tells Drew Miller exactly where to reinstall one of the boats. Flowers refers to the digital photograph that was taken before the objects were removed as documentation of the precise placement of each object. The white foam core board squares function like stepping stones that allow Drew to walk within the set and reach the interior objects without disturbing the sand.

During this third round, Multiple Visions has remained open to the public as a team of five people worked three days a week, one scene at a time. Photographer Kitty Leaken has documented each and every object and each scene once cleaning was completed, while also photographing the process. Since January 2019, the team has completed the Chinese Opera, the Circus, the Mexican Town of Acatlán, the Nineteenth-Century American Town, the Harbor Scene, the Pueblo Feast Day, the Italian villa, and the Moroccan street scene. This ongoing process should take three to five years. 

The lights that illuminated the Harbor Scene from beneath the water (glass) had burned out long ago. New LED lights and some deep cleaning of the rippled glass bring the river scene back to life. Changing out set and overhead lights to LED is another aspect of the project that will brighten the displays while causing less fading of the objects on display. Here, the team removes a piece of plexiglass that shows signs of wear, and will put a new one in its place.

Visitors enjoy seeing the work in progress—once they get over the initial surprise of seeing a person, like Drew Miller, inside the set. “I have to relax myself before entering a village,” says Miller, “so that I can carefully tiptoe through the fragile landscape like a gentle giant.”

Bryan Johnson-French puts the finishing touches on the newly cleaned Circus set. Most of the large sets are open at the top. The display heights exceed the height of the plexiglass, which makes keeping them clean a challenge, and changing the casework would alter Alexander Girard’s original design. Girard covered the surface of most platforms with sand, which the team anticipated would be very difficult to clean. They discovered, however, that they could lift most of the dust by gently laying dry Swiffer pads on the sand several times.
Bryan Johnson-French carefully brings a nineteenth-century French carousel from the Circus set to the studio to be photographed. “One of the carousel chairs is faced in the wrong direction. We think Alexander Girard did this intentionally. That was just his sense of humor. The same is true of some of the processions—everyone is walking in one direction except for one figure that is faced the wrong way.” Naturally, Johnson-French left the nonconformist carousel rider as is.
Periodically, the team stumbles upon surprises during the course of their work. Here, a diagram explaining a puzzle was discovered inside an unrelated figurative incense burner from postwar Germany. “You never know what hidden delights you will find,” says photographer Kitty Leaken. “It’s the joy of play.”
When Girard installed the Acatlán town set, he placed a mirror inside the eye-catching cathedral that overlooks the town, so reflected light would illuminate the interior and the priest at the altar. At some point, the mirror fell, dimming the cathedral’s interior. Here, Bryan Johnson-French repositions the mirror, allowing viewers to once again appreciate the cathedral interior’s depth.
Workers give each object a numbered tag before removing it from a display for cleaning and photography. These figures by Herón Martínez Mendoza from the Mexican Town of Acatlán scene will be put back in their original spots with the help of this numbering system. In the Acatlán set alone, there are 555 objects. It took a team of five people seven and a half days to restore this scene.
With the aid of a headlamp, a soft natural-bristle brush, and a special HEPA‑filter vacuum meant for delicate objects, Tara Russo performs the fine cleaning of a ceramic Day of the Dead procession from the Acatlán town set. Girard covered the highly decorated base so it would not be visible. Discoveries such as these illustrate the deliberate decisions he made about each display. Perhaps he thought the base was too distracting, or perhaps he covered the base with sand to make the figures appear more animated.
Working on the Girard Wing requires a certain amount of flexibility and athleticism. Here, Drew Miller squeezes between the casework plexiglass and a row of houses in the Nineteenth-Century American Town to remove the next house in line for cleaning and documentation. In this set, Alexander Girard made use of branches from local plants, including chamisa and sage, that were pruned and scaled to appear as trees in the home yards. These present a unique challenge to clean, as they capture more airborne dust than other objects.
Polina Smutko cleans a favorite miniature house from the Nineteenth-Century American Town set. Now director of collections, Smutko was offered a temporary job in 1988 to clean the Girard Wing. “I jumped at the chance. Not at the five dollars an hour, but to be intimately engaged in Alexander Girard’s wonderland.” This is Smutko’s third Girard Wing refresh project. She’s excited about the progress toward digitally documenting the objects and sets. “This will allow us to share Girard’s playfulness, ingenuity and sense of wonder with the rest of the world.”
Examining each object up close has allowed the team to appreciate Alexander Girard’s attention to the details of his beloved toys and folk art. For most houses in the Nineteenth-Century American Town set, Girard made lace or fabric curtains to make the houses feel lived-in.
In the photo studio, Emma LeBow works side-by-side with photographer Kitty Leaken, operating the shutter release from the computer once Leaken has composed and lit the shot. LeBow then labels each photograph with the object’s accession number and transfers the file to a server, where the image is attached to the object’s database record. Next, each object record is reviewed and corrected by curatorial and collections staff.