DANVILLE — If dolls are reflections of us, then the Great American Dollhouse Museum mirrors life in these United States over the last couple of centuries.
More than 200 dollhouses, miniature buildings and room boxes are on display in the museum's winding path inside a restored 1939 National Guard armory.
"Even people who have seen the website sometimes don't have a sense of how big it is," said founder and curator Lori Kagan-Moore, 57. "Sometimes people think it's going to be in a little house or something."
The detail of the miniatures is intricate and exact — from the flashing around a house chimney to the legs on a jewelry box. But rather than exhibit static, boring displays, Kagan-Moore strives to present stories that are interconnected and that engage visitors.
For example, a portion of the fictional 1910 village called Copper Hollow depicts two figures sweeping flowers after a wedding in an Eastern Orthodox church. In another display across the aisle, "you would see that there is a wedding reception happening in one house, and the bride is getting ready to come to the reception in another house," Kagan-Moore said. "In this house, the schoolteacher is keeping the boys in so they don't disturb the wedding reception next door, and they're kind of losing it and fighting and falling all over the floor because they've been kept in all day."
In the caption to another exhibit, a large contemporary house, a new nanny says, "'I'm terrible at this job but at least I've got Gregory settled into the kitchen with his stamp collection.'"
The kitchen, indeed, shows a stamp collection, but Gregory isn't there. "If you look around the house, you can see he has been everywhere," Kagan-Moore said, but it's up to the visitor to finally find him in an upstairs bedroom dyeing the cat various colors.
"It's important that all these stories are linked because it keeps you interested," Kagan-Moore said. "What we wanted to do was to make it all a kind of unfolding story, so you are always looking for things that are part of the story."
Telling stories through dollhouses appears to have worked. The museum, which opened in 2008, attracts 5,000 to 6,000 people a year.
"From my front desk, I hear people back here just laughing, because they're reading the captions or they're looking and calling each other over. It's really very fun," Kagan-Moore said.
Kagan-Moore, a former social worker and Lexington jewelry store owner, began collecting dollhouses in 2005 for the express purpose of starting a museum. Before then, her personal collection of miniatures was only enough to populate a single dollhouse.
"When my kids started to get grown, I opened up three little boxes and I was just swept away with how much I loved working with miniatures. ... It just took me a few months, and I realized, 'I'm going to do a dollhouse museum right here in Danville.'
"So from 2005 to 2008, I bought 80 percent of what you see here. And the other 20 percent has been donated since then."
The museum's focus is on social history: how people work and play. The museum's first section gives a timeline of the United States from Native Americans through the Colonial period, the Old West and then into the modern era.
The second major display depicts an American town around 1910, as well as a Shaker village. One house was donated to the museum by Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in neighboring Mercer County.
"It was part of their collection and they had it for about 30 years, and when we opened, they decided it belonged to us," Kagan-Moore said.
The final section of the museum features a fantasy-filled world of elves and dragons. The museum also has a miniatures store so enthusiasts can decorate and furnish their own dollhouses.
Kagan-Moore said the museum sees an uptick in visitors after holidays such as the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"Whenever families get together, we see lots of people. At Christmastime, even after Christmas, when people are looking for day trips, then we see a lot of people," she said.
"It's become a favorite place to bring Aunt So-and-So and Uncle Bob. When I hear people laughing and saying 'Come here, come here, you've got to see this!' it just warms my heart. What else would I want to do?"