Cabinets of curiosities, also known as ‘wonder rooms’, were small collections of extraordinary objects which, like today’s museums, attempted to categorise and tell stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world. The British Library.
Imagine you are safely delivered home from “in-country,” and living simply near GNV in a Seminole-style chickee with no electricity or running water. Low overhead in other words.
Imagine that your time in combat in Vietnam left you disillusioned and searching for some meaning to your life. But you are a pretty good musician and event producer, so making a living in GNV is no hardship.
What do you do with your, um, disposable income?
If you are Bill Hutchinson you embark on a lifetime of collecting. Curiosities and oddities from all the world over. And with little rhyme or reason to your acquisition choices.
An Edison light bulb here. A healer’s handbook printed on palm leaf husks there. Maybe a veddy veddy English “China” tea set that gave the world the slang term “pothole” over there. Some parchment velum from the Gutenberg era thrown in for good measure.
Oh, and not to forget those intriguing objects bearing the stern admonition “Do not under any circumstances put your head in a ringing bowl!”
Long story short. Hutchinson and his wife – a liberal arts design major turned tax accountant by necessity – Jennifer Johnson, acquired a 121-year old House on NW 6th St. They formed a 501c3 non-profit organization, emptied out their warehouses and opened the doors on the Theater of Memory.
“I’m a generalist with these giddy little binges of specialization,” says Hutchinson. “Any of these areas of collecting has people who adore” their specialization. “And everybody knows more about something than I do. I’m learning all the time.“
“An antidote to the digital world is a big part of what we’re doing here,” he said. Too many “kids do not know anything beyond the screens they see. We’re trying to make this a destination for families and classes and individuals and book clubs…any kind of club you can think of.”
“We really value conversation here. Sometimes I learn more from our visitors than they learn from me. You can come in and look around, but only superficially in one visit. There is a depth to every single room that you an plumb, if you wish to.”
Which is to say that Hutchinson has a story for virtually every item in his curious collection. And he is happy to tell them.
Indeed, story telling is the whole point. “This is great joy to me. When traveling to a rock shop or a rare book store you meet people who want to tell you a story. It’s really the stories I collect.”
Hutchinson takes his museum’s name from the Italian Renaissance philosopher Guilio Camilo, who proposed building a Theater of Memory. “He said that if he had the money he would get a big building and fill it with artifacts, and people would walk through and from what they saw would pull forth an eloquence they did not know they possessed.”
“I dont want to have everything labeled,” he said. “Ralph Waldo Emerson, my favorite transcendentalist, said you don’t have to name everything to appreciate it.”
As a collector, Bill says, “I’ve never bid against Malcom Forbes for anything. But there is a lower echelon for collecting too. If you look at 1,000 things, you may find 10 that are really worth having.”
“If your internet search is wide ranging, you will spot things that the seller has no idea what they are selling. I did get some things that were fake, but with eBay you can get your money back.”
With all due respect to our current Governor’s war against “wokeness,” Hutchinson invites you to open his Critical Race Theory door. If you can stomach what’s inside, then Ron DeSantis wants you.
Part of his extensive tea set collection (bottom right) comes from Stratsfordshire, England, where the discovery of a certain kind of clay allowed the manufacture of “China” that did not actually come from China. “The clay was so common” in Stratsfordshire, Bill said, “that sometimes to save time potters would just go out and dig it up from the road. We still call those potholes.”
Hutchinson likes to show off the 1895 Kansas 8th grade graduation exam he picked up. “The guy I got it from said he had two masters degrees and he couldn’t get through it.”
And listen, don’t get Bill started on the dumbing down of modern American society, or he may ask you to take that Kansas exam.
Many of the people who headed west were “very literate and came from all over the world. This was the land of opportunity and they came from places where you could not go beyond your station. This was like heaven, and they brought their European educations here with them.”
Bill dedicated his Wild West room to Louis L’Amour. “He taught me that people took Milton and Plutarch, and Shakespeare with them in their saddle bags.”
He has a 19th century Chinese painting depicting three philosopher drinking from a vat of vinegar that is said to represent life itself:
The Confucian says “It’s so sour.”
The Buddhist says “How bitter.”
Ah, but the Taoist says “Isn’t this sweet?”
“There is a long tradition of scholar’s stones in China,” Hutchinson says. “They are a scholar’s attempt to bring the greater world into his studio so he doesnt get so bound up that he forgets there’s a universe outside.”
The paper argonaut is a variety of octopus that has developed its shell as an egg case, “a baby carriage that can be moved up to near the surface, through the use of ballasts and air, where it’s warm enough to incubate.” How cool is that?
A renown American scholar once traveled to Japan. “After a very stimulating conversation with a monk,” Hutchinson says, “the monk called for paper and ink and whipped these two panels out. One side says: ‘Sincerity is the way of heaven.’ The other side says: ‘To think how to be sincere is the way of man.’”
Bill and Jennifer have given themselves two years to prove that the Theater of Memory can establish its place in the artistic and cultural life of GNV.
“We want to be sustainable,” he said. “We’re hoping for grants. Some people have been kind enough to make donations, in some cases substantial donations.”
Listen if you have a curiosity about the curious nature of life, the universe and everything, you could do a lot worse than to drop in and visit with the Theater of Memory, at 1705 NW 6th St.
Oh, and one thing more: If you do go, don’t forget to open the door to The Ballroom.
Listen, I could tell you what’s in there. But then I’d have to kill you.