In the heart of Gainesville, there is a place where time stops, rewinds and folds over itself.
The Theatre of Memory Museum, located at 1705 NW 6th Street, is the home of thousands of artifacts ranging from Philippine seashells to clocks that tick backward. Teapots from different dynasties are stacked neatly on shelves. Torahs, Qurans and Sri Lankan palm leaf medical manuscripts share a space in glass cabinets. All stories from different places and different moments in time.
Bill Hutchinson, curator of the Theatre of Memory, founded the museum to express his love for history and storytelling.
“I always wanted to be a museum when I grew up,” he said.
And he fulfilled that dream. Hutchinson, or at least his mind, is a living museum. He can explain in fine detail the story of almost every artifact in the building.
His fascination with stories began after he returned home from the Vietnam War. As he struggled with the pain he saw around him, he found hope in the story of everyday objects.
“I would pick up an artifact or something and say ‘Boy, there’s a story in there,’” he said. “Flash forward 50 years, I have three storage units full of stories and I realized that it is what the children call ‘dead s—.’ If nobody’s looking at it, there’s nothing happening.”
So he began looking for a way to share those stories with other people. His first try was in High Springs from 1994 until 2004.
It started small, a simple room with decorations and antiquities, he said. But then he bought a building in Gainesville in July 2021, collecting more artifacts along the way.
“If you are a collector and you are voracious, you look everywhere,” Hutchinson said.
Any time he would travel he would stop in books shops and ask for things in manuscript. When he went to the desert, he would talk to people selling rocks. But antique shops were his favorite.
“Everybody who deals in antiques has got some poetry in their souls,” he said.
It is because of these everyday people that Hutchinson continues to be inspired. He not only found hope in the stories of everyday objects, but everyday people. It’s not just the kings and the men whose stories deserve to be told. It’s the common people selling rocks in the desert, the women in their antique stories, the people of color that deserve that as well, he said.
A lot of Hutchinson’s effort is dedicated to preserving the history of those who society has tried to forget.
“How about a little compassion for the trauma that others have endured? Is that so hard?” he said. “I don’t think it is, and I think that people are generally very good and kind, and I have a lot of hope for the future. Let’s stay awake and alive.”
He is grateful to be alive himself to tell these stories. He survived the war and health effects related to exposure to Agent Orange. Meanwhile, so many of his friends died. His best friend is going through chemo for the third time.
“I’m healthy. That’s a big deal, you know?” Hutchinson said. “So, gratitude. Gratitude.”
He is also grateful for the people who visit the museum and appreciate the beauty that comes with the changing of time, he said.
Some of those visitors include Mary Hall, Linda Carlson and Nan Ryan.
This group of women first visited the museum on the same warm Friday afternoon along with a few others. Some had never met before. As they entered the building, they were surprised to find Hutchinson there, and he offered to give them a private tour.
They meandered through the many rooms of the Theatre of Memory Museum, stopping to gawk at dinosaur eggs and vintage Beatles records. Hutchinson even let them hold a jade teapot from his collection. He believes that having the museum be interactive, helps people connect with history much better, he said.
“If it only lasts 200 more years and not 2000, I don’t care,” he said. “Right now we need to fondle this stuff.”
Hall appreciated how the museum exudes the energy of Gainesville, she said.
“There’s so many different people from different places, students, professors and farmers and just a great eclectic mixture of people,” said Hall, a retired educator. “And I think the museum reflects the best part of that eclectic outlook which I hope we can keep.”
Meanwhile, Carlson, a retired Gainesville resident, valued how much she learned about the world.
“How many times today since we walked in the door have I said ‘I did not know that,’” Carlson said.
Ryan, an administrative assistant, heard about the museum from some friends, and decided to check it out. The variety of objects was particularly interesting.
“There’s something here for everyone from the little preschoolers who came today who loved the sea creatures, to the 18-year-old,” Ryan said. “And then to people like us who are retired or semi-retired who just ran to the Beatles.”
In fact, Hutchinson thinks that is what makes the museum so great, when someone can personally connect with a little piece of history.
“The honor is when somebody comes in and gets something new out of it that tickles them in some way,” he said.
As the women asked about the story behind a wooden flower arrangement base, Hutchinson recounted the story of Shizuko Imao Tokunaga. The arrangement base was the only thing she took with her when she and her family were forced into the Tule Internment Camp on March 3, 1942.
They nodded and hummed in awe.
“That’s such an interesting story,” Hall said.
“Facts fade. Stories stick,” Hutchinson said.
Watch below: WUFT’s Alexis Ashby produced this video about the theatre.