A Curator As Intriguing As His Museum Of Un-Natural History
Every Saturday at 10 a.m., Gerald Matthews opens a black door above Tallman’s Drugstore in Walla Walla. The rooms behind the door are filled with mundane objects that have been turned into the macabre.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary — and sometimes the offensive.
Matthews has opened his Museum of Un-Natural History every Saturday since September 2001.
“I opened up right around the time of the attacks,” Matthews, 87, says. “And I’ve been happily ensconced ever since.”
Matthews and his wife, Pat Stanley, moved to Walla Walla in 1989 after retiring from long careers in show business. Stanley won a Tony Award in 1959 for her role as a featured actress in “Goldilocks” and Matthews appeared on TV in “Highway Patrol” and “The Naked City,” among other credits. He was best known as a voice actor and as the voice of Sugar Bear in commercials for Golden Crisps cereal beginning in 1963.
His sugary voice has become a bit salty as he watches people look at art he has created. According to Matthews, about 50 to 80 visitors climb the stairs to the museum every Saturday, and most of them have a few things in common.
“They all ask the same questions,” Matthews says, adjusting the green plastic visor he wears. Sitting in a raised chair adorned with a baseball catcher’s equipment, he stretches his right arm toward a wooden object that stands on two legs and has something resembling a human face on it.
“I’ll tell you that my favorite piece is this one here because I can point at it from here.”
When he and his wife moved to Walla Walla, they didn’t bring much furniture with them. So Matthews built tables, chairs, a bed frame and wardrobe. When he’d built enough, he started to make more odd and interesting things from wood and machine parts he found. Eventually he had built enough of his art pieces, mixes of wood, metal, and other found objects, that he needed somewhere to put them. After selling a dozen pieces at a gallery showing, Matthews opened the Museum of Un-Natural History.
“I didn’t want to get rid of any of it, so I just put it all here,” Matthews says. “It’s taken about 25 years to accumulate all of this.”
He’s still building and collecting, too. Fans of the museum bring Matthews all sorts of objects, hoping he will use the materials for his art.
“People bring me an abundance of bones,” he says. “I’ve done everything I can with bones.”
There are a lot of bones in the museum. And if you’re even a casual art fan, you’ll notice Matthews’ use of absurdist, surrealist, and Dadaist art principles. Dada art in particular is meant to be satirical and nonsensical and fits Matthews’ art well. a piece titled “Ask Moloch” features a dummy head inside a 1950s radio cabinet with a large Victrola-style speakerphone on top.
And, if you are looking for it, plenty of which can be viewed as objectionable. While there is some nudity in the exhibits, religious iconography is also used. One display, near the front door, is a large glass case filled with toy soldiers. Among the soldiers, a figure of an angel with a fiery sword battles the horde away from figures of the baby Jesus and Mary. The display is titled “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem.”
“Some people do find things here offensive, mostly the religious stuff. But I’ve done my best to fight them off,” Matthews says.
A sign near the front gives a warning to patrons:
“Please do not touch, lick, stroke, or mount the exhibits,” the sign reads. Before entering, guests are warned to enter at their own risk and that this is a more adult-oriented space.
One such adult-themed item is kept in a small wooden box adorned with a carved “N.” Matthews claims that inside the box is the left testicle of Napoleon Bonaparte. He opens the two-inch square box and dumps out an almost black, shriveled nugget that looks more like an ancient piece of dried fruit, the size of a prune or a fig.
“I’ve been trying to get the Whitman College folks interested in it for their Napoleon exhibit for years, but they haven’t taken the bait,” Matthews says.
No matter the origin, the small box and its contents is just one of the hundreds of items that represent Matthews’ legacy. What to do with them is a question Matthews hasn’t figured out.
“My growing concern is what to do when I can’t get up the stairs anymore,” he says.
Matthews says that while he and his wife have children and several grandchildren, none have shown interest in the museum.
“I might just end up auctioning it all off.”
Until that time, the former actor remains a showman, watching for reactions to the things he’s made. He’s always keeping his eye out for things that interest him. He reminds everyone who comes in that he built or compiled everything here, including arranging five cymbal-clanging nightmare monkeys in a row.
He never mentions the straw hat near the black door with “ALMS” written on it, his version of a donation box. The important thing is that these are his creations.
“I built that wall,” Matthews says, smiling and pointing to a wall covered with various items including wooden masks and small dolls. Before returning to his perch on the cather’s chair, Matthews glances again at the wall. Whether he is speaking off-hand, still questioning the future of the Museum of Un-Natural History, or speaking directly, he says, “You can have it, if you want.”
The Museum of Un-Natural History is open 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., Saturdays or by appointment. The museum is at 4 ½ Main St., Walla Walla. For more information, visit WallaWallaDada.com.
Copyright 2018 Northwest Public Broadcasting
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