The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History occupies a former call centre in Hackney, East London, its black façade covered in spidery white Victorian lettering. Step inside, and you’ll find several things you might expect (occult drawings, dodo bones, a two-headed lamb) and countless more you wouldn’t; and many of the displays are currently infested by a gleeful army of microscopic fairies who, courtesy of artist Tessa Farmer, have ‘broken into the museum and are wreaking havoc on the exhibits’.
The key to this idiosyncratic museum lies in its origins as a Little Shop of Horrors, opened in 2009 by an eccentric artist previously best known for the themed soirées and masked balls he created as Chancellor of The Last Tuesday Society.
After seven years of ‘watching all his best stuff being sold’, however, Wynd tired of keeping shop, so he launched an online campaign, raised £16,000 in 30 days, and turned it into a museum — with a tiny cocktail bar, an art gallery that will shortly show work by Alasdair Gray, Mervyn Peake and Günter Grass, much of it from Wynd’s vast art collection, and a basement dining room where guests eat off a sarcophagus containing a 19th-century human skeleton, surrounded by erotic art and the caged skeleton of a lion.
Meanwhile Wynd himself, who started collecting butterflies and shells as a boy, and never stopped, now concentrates on dealing privately, as well as lending art to museums — works by Gray and Leonora Carrington to the Kelvingrove in Glasgow and Tate Liverpool, for example. While family life has put paid to his extended collecting missions to West Papua and the Congo (Wynd lives in Norfolk with his wife, his eight-year-old stepson and one-year-old twin girls, with another on the way), he has written the entertaining Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet of Wonders (Prestel, £29.99) which explores his and other favourite collections and museums, from that of The Great Auk author Errol Fuller to Snowshill Manor.
In the book, Wynd describes the motivation behind his need to collect (‘I need beauty and the uncanny, the funny and the silly, the odd and the rare. Rare and beautiful things are the barrier between me and a bottomless pit of misery and despair’), comparing it cheerfully to an infectious disease. There is no logic to his collection, he admits; he just collects what he likes. Some of his natural history items, such as his giant anteater skeleton and elephant’s skull, are rare and valuable; he has sold a Japanese spider-crab skeleton and the feathers of extinct birds through Christies; and his whole collection is insured at more than £1 million. That said, part of the aim of the museum is to challenge notions of value. ‘I like the idea of placing a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy beside something beautiful and precious,’ he says.
For other lovers of extraordinary things, Wynd’s book contains sound advice: collect what you like, not what you think will make a good investment; and do your research by speaking to other private collectors, reading books and going to museums (Wynd recommends the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, the Ipswich Museum and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter). ‘It’s good to know what is rare and what isn’t,’ says Wynd. ‘Hippo skulls are quite common, but elephant skulls are almost impossible to find. And don’t try to buy too much. Concentrate on one or two things that are really good. I can’t, unfortunately.’
The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History opens Wednesday to Sunday 11am–10pm. The autumn lecture programme starts on 7 September. ‘Men’s Games: Alasdair Grey, Mervyn Peake and Günter Grass’ opens on 23 September. ‘In Fairy Land: Tessa Farmer’ runs until 13 February 2016. For more details, see www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org.
Main image at top: Viktor Wynd pictured in his Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History. Photographs by Joanna Maclennan
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