Oh the things he’s collected

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.

If you look up the definition of “eclectic collector” you may well see a photo of Bill Hutchinson.

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?

After half a century of collecting, he ended up with “three storage units full of stories…I always wanted to be a museum when I grow up.” And so now he is.

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!”

There are wheels within wheels within wheels in Bill Hutchinson’s Theater of Memory. He net-surfed the world over looking for a wheel of fortune and finally located one….just five miles from home.

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.“

If music makes the world go ‘round, the circle remains unbroken in the Theater of Memory.

“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.”

A pair of John Lennon’s glasses. Russian-style nesting Beatles dolls. An osteopathic hammer (“Maxwell Edison majoring in medicine….” And by all means, let’s stack the deck with George, Paul, John and Ringo.

“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.”

The Gallery is currently decked out for a meeting of the UF Women’s Club.

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.”

There are house rules of course. But none so hard or fast as: DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES PUT YOUR HEAD IN A RINGING BOWL.

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.”

Right, a 19th century elephant bell from Thailand. Left, a belled harness for yak or oxen from Kathmandu.

“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.”

Bill’s collection of Oriental manuscripts.

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.”

Left: Calography brushes come in all sizes. Right: An Ayurvedic medicine handbook printed on palm leaf husks and once carried by physicians throughout India and Southeast Asia.

“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.”

“Of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings.” Louis Carroll would surely approve of this Theater of Memory.
“When slavery ended they figured out another way to enslave Black people,” he said. “And that was to capture and convict them of crimes, put them in chain gangs and then rent out those chain gangs.”

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.

Hutchinson got this burl flower arrangement base from a Japanese woman who once lived in an internment camp. “She said ‘please take care of this, I’m afraid it will end up in someone’s lumber pile,’” he recalled. “I keep fresh flowers in it.”

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.”

You might not get it from “Deadwood” episodes, but Bill will tell you that many of the people who settled the west were quite literate, having enjoyed the benefits of a European-style education.

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.”

Education ain’t what it used to be.

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.

It was the Long Branch Salon, not saloon.

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.”

Two scholar’s stones from China. And a parable about three philosophers walking into a vinegar bar.

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 solace of seashells.

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?

19th century sign. From left to right it reads “quiet thinking room.” But Bill said he was told that when reading from right to left (in the Japanese manner) it says “darkness feeling quiet.” Who knew?
The Thinking Room.

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.’”

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice.

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.

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