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Tiny Town: A Cabinet of Curiosities at the Rhode Island School of Design

nature lab

There was no better place to spend part of a Halloween afternoon than in the basement room of the Nature Lab at RISD, a wonderful collection of flora and fauna specimens—most dead, some alive—made available for study at the Rhode Island School of Design. And in its corner stands a true cabinet of old library card catalog named Tiny Town.

tiny town

Tiny Town is organized and filled with teeny samples, all kept in identical plastic boxes. There's one drawer just for spider parts, and another for minerals (including a box of ashes from Mount St. Helens). The categories are broad—Animalia:Insects may have anything from a dried beetle to unidentified long limbs. Glass slides that show cross sections of an eyeball or heart muscle can be viewed under a microscope. Little handwritten and manually typed labels meticulously catalogue each specimen, many of which date back decades.


Part of the experience of entering the lab is the sense of stepping back in time. No computer searches needed—instead, immediate gratification from shelves brimming with butterfly boxes, shells, and skeletons. Taxidermy lines the walls. The place is part flea market, part graveyard—and all analog.


Tiny Town is particularly satisfying in that pulling on a drawer of the familiar card catalog yields not just text results but an entire collection of the actual things themselves, a portal into a miniature world. For years I've coveted theses beautiful but irrelevant bureaus when they pop up in secondhand stores, though I never had the space or a really good use for them. They underscore the things we have lost as we've moved from print to digital. But this room at RISD is a perfect use; it's a place where an obsolete search engine is transformed into a little gem of a museum.

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Karin Fong is a director and designer based in New York City. As one of the founding members of Imaginary Forces, Karin's work spans the diverse worlds of entertainment, experience design, and advertising. Among her best-known projects are title sequences for Terminator Salvation, The Pink Panther 2, Ray, Definitely Maybe, and Charlotte's Web. She earned an Emmy Award for Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection and a nomination for the hit NBC series Chuck. Karin has created environmental design projects in Las Vegas, Lincoln Center, and at the Los Angeles Opera. She directed television commercials for Target, Honda, Sears, and Herman Miller, and was recently named one of the Top 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine. Karin has had work in the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Artists Space, and The Wexner Center.