‘The amusement park and the historical reconstruction often promise to bring history to life, and it is here that we must pay particular attention once more to the relation between miniature and narrative. For the function of the miniature here is to bring historical events “to life”, to immediacy, and thereby to erase their history, to lose us within their presentness.’
Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Baltimore, 1984), p. 60
When I think about my childhood in Britain in the 1970s and ’80s, it seems that the whole country was littered with ‘model villages’: tiny worlds of detailed replicas, somewhat battered by the rain. I vividly remember more than one trip to Tucktonia (1976-85), the now-vanished park near Bournemouth which showcased ‘The Best of Britain in Miniature!’ One was expected to wander around, wowed by the skill at which ‘real life’ had been rendered in the form of tiny buildings. Tucktonia was actually part of a craze, started in England at Bekonscot (begun in the 1920s and still going) and in America at Tiny Town in Colorado (begun in 1915): there are now miniature parks all over the world and it seems to be something of a national rite of passage to build tiny versions of iconic buildings. In most cases, the buildings reproduced are chosen for their symbolism, representing the highlights of the nation and its built history.
In the Middle Ages, replicas in miniature of Jerusalem and the Holy Land were common, in various formats: these could be wooden models of the Holy Sepulchre, maps of Palestine, or the condensed installations I’ve written about here, as at Bologna (Italy). In all cases, the main principle is condensation: a place reduced to a version of its essential elements, as determined by its designers. In the Middle Ages, these landscapes blended elements of the real environment with a fantasy of how the Holy Land should be.
The current version of these replicas stands in a dusty field in central Israel, in the form of the Mini-Israel park (founded 2002, and definitely showing its age). Mini-Israel is located in a particularly important symbolic space, adjacent to the Latrun police station where, in 1948 and then in 1967, a series of important battles were fought for Israeli independence. In this sense, it is a kind of secular, Zionist pilgrimage site; most of the visitors when I went were groups of schoolchildren. The Google street address for the site remains ‘No Man’s Land’, as it sits on the erased border between Israel and the former Jordanian territory of the West Bank; Mini-Israel is therefore by no means neutral as a celebration of the nation state on the site of an erased border. I visited Mini-Israel in July 2014 with a view to thinking about connections between this kind of mediated Holy Land and its medieval precursors.
Mini-Israel is, obviously, selective, and it would be petty merely to write about the bizarre selection of sites. But there is an outstanding omission, from my perspective, in the model of Jerusalem: the entire Christian Quarter of the Old City simply does not exist, and missing with it is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Where the Christian Quarter should be is a patch of scrubland and bonsai trees. The resulting cityscape is therefore much more dominated by the Jewish and Islamic holy site of the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock, and its iconic golden dome. I hesitate to guess about the politics of this omission: perhaps the park’s designers never got round to miniaturizing the Christian Quarter, or maybe they feel that plenty of churches were included elsewhere (the park does attempt a haphazardly ecumenical approach, with mosques and other churches, for instance). But an omission like this is, of course, tacitly political, just as is the lack of borders (the park is arranged in the shape of a Star of David, rather than following Israel’s internationally-recognised, pre-1967 borders). Likewise, there are no refugee camps, no development towns, no nuclear reactor, no dispossessed Bedouin communities: like any such miniature park, Mini-Israel builds an ideal rather than reflects reality.
Mini-Israel is very different from a pilgrimage site in many ways: unlike a traditional pilgrimage landscape, Mini-Israel has no formal or predetermined ‘route’ through it, little organising narrative, and interpretation is largely left to the individual. At the same time, when considered as a mechanical technology of artificial space, Mini-Israel has much in common with medieval pilgrimage landscapes: the miniature or the model always tends toward description and depiction rather than contextual information and narrative (pace Stewart’s On Longing), and so enacts a kind of historical, contextual and spatial closure. It is a total view of the world, arrested in a dream of harmony. The whole of the park is built to a size ratio of 1:25, and this emphasis on scale also represents a harmonious fantasy: the space is managed by a mathematical principle of reduction of the exterior element of the built environment; in the miniature park, the emphasis is on the tiny facades of the buildings, rather than their lived history or location in shared/contested space. Where there are figurines of people, they look like frozen ants, stopped in strange poses: at the Western Wall, they reel about and topple over, as if drunk, or ill.
At various points in Mini-Israel, sponsored exhibits show automated mechanical reproductions in miniature: the airport, a dairy, a kibbutz at work. Aeroplanes took off and landed in a repetitive movement. Tiny trains whirred round and round a railway in an infinite loop. The automatic mechanicals struck me as uncanny, a little depressing, working away in a self-serving fiction, seemingly independent of human agency or vitality.