Some say he was never born, and that he only writes with a fine goose quill pen. Katie Strick explores the curious world of local artist and collector Viktor Wynd
It’s a curious place, Mare Street. Where rioters caused chaos just four years ago, a series of bars and pubs are now springing up for the urban elite. Hipsters sip £5 cappuccinos in arty cafes, whilst next-door boarded-up charity shops beg for donations after vandalism attacks. It’s the home of Hackney Town Hall, of Hackney Empire, and unknowingly to most who live there, a little place known as The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History.
A bell rings as I step from a sun-spilled pavement into a dimly lit room. From the outside, the place could be mistaken for a small, insignificant, shop front. A bloodied, plastic arm reaches across the counter, and a friendly hipster takes out his headphones to say hello. I explain that I’ve won a ticket for free entry to the museum, which includes complimentary tea and cake. The puzzled look I receive tells me otherwise. Apparently they don’t do tea. Or cake.
The hipster ushers me through nonetheless. I peer through into the restaurant, but a stuffed lion is the only guest at the large wooden table today. The place has an eerie, unnerving feel, as though it is always nighttime.
I’ve barely reached the bottom of the unusually narrow spiral staircase when I’m greeted by a gentleman who is quick to throw a boa constrictor over my shoulders. I’m told his name is Sam – the snake that is – and his yellowy corn snake companion is called Colin. Today is the second day of a petting zoo at the museum, to which zoologist Tim Maynard brings along his army of exotic reptiles, amphibians and bugs for a weekend minibreak. I’m led over to the corner of the room, where I meet Lola the bearded dragon, Gismo the chameleon and Tess the tarantula. I keep particular distance from Tess.
Tim tells me he had 176 visitors yesterday, and lots more today. “Tarantulas are more popular than you think,” he says. “There must be 20-30,000 kept as pets in the UK, and that’s a conservative estimate.”
Sam begins to get restless. Wary of his increasingly strong grip around my neck, I unwind him from my shoulders and politely hand him back to a smiling Tim. I decide to take a look around the rest of the museum. An impressive amount of junk – I mean art – has been crammed into this small space. I walk around the room, gazing into the glass cabinets. A one-eyed doll rests against a mummified cat, and next-door a mannequin wears a red sequin suit. Bizarre and provocative paintings hang from the walls. I cast my eyes over some of the titles on a bookshelf above: Enid Blyton’s Gay Story Book, Sex Instruction for Irish Farmers. Below: a supposed pubic hair of Hackney hero Russell Brand, a series of jars of celebrity poos (Amy Winehouse and Kylie Minogue included).
By this point a young couple have arrived at the petting zoo. The chap seems rather pleased with his unusual choice of date venue, but it swiftly become obvious he has competition in the form of Gismo the chameleon. I wonder which one she’ll be taking home.
The four of us bond over the lizard’s continued failed attempts to escape his box on the table. So what of Viktor himself?, I ask, feeling as though I’ve suitably toured the inner workings of Mr Wynd’s mind.
“He’s something of an enigma,” says Tim, who claims he’s a close friend of Mr Wynd. “He’s a difficult person to talk to.”
Trying to form a mental image of this mysterious art collector, I ask his age.
“I couldn’t tell you,” says Tim. “Thirties? Forties? Very few people know.”
It seems this man is a mystery, even to close friends. A look at his website tells me his interests include “carnivorous plants, The Tropics, girls, the seaside, melancholia and loneliness”.
My mind wanders. Viktor Wynd sounds more fictional than reality, and after browsing his collections it’s not hard to see why. But I want to meet this man for myself.
24 hours after my insight into his world of taxidermy, shrunken heads and assorted oddities, and I have Mr Wynd on the end of the line. Dialling his Norfolk number, I feel as though I’m about to speak to a character from a storybook; as though I’m a child and someone is being payed large amounts of money to ‘play’ the infamous Viktor Wynd down the phone to me for two minutes.
“Hello,” he picks up. A much higher voice than I was expecting.
I begin with simple questions, about Hackney, his museum, the animals.
“I like tarantulas,” Viktor tells me, with great seriousness. “The petting zoo is a wonderful opportunity for people to get to know them better. I think they’re wonderful ambassadors for their species.”
He remains awfully formal for a man talking about spiders, stuffed animals and erotica.
“The main problem we’ve got with the museum is that people just don’t know it’s here,” he goes on. “It’s supposed to be a secret and we can’t have everyone, but we do need to let local people know that we’re there.”
Does he interact with the visitors? “I’m not a very good people person,” says Mr Wynd, confirming the rumours. “I think the museum is me in many ways, so I’m already there.”
We talk about museum audio guides and living costs in Hackney.
The conversation seems to be flowing quite nicely, so I decide to try my luck. I test the water and ask a personal question. “Is Viktor Wynd your real name?,” I probe.
“It’s quite a nice sunny day at the moment, what’s it like with you?” he retaliates immediately.
As I suspected. I ask why he avoids disclosing personal information.
“There’s no reason why I should, is there?,” he replies, defensively. “I’m not the Prime Minister. It’s irrelevant, there’s enough of me in the museum.”
Viktor tells me his favourite thing about Hackney is the food.
And the worst? I ask. “The transport links aren’t brilliant, are they?” says Viktor. There’s a pause down the line, and I wait to be told more about Mr Wynd’s thoughts on trains and buses.
“And I haven’t been able to get a decent croissant for a while,” he says.
I laugh, but it seems Mr Wynd was deadly serious Hackney’s lack of quality French baked goods. It’s not just his museum that is extraordinarily random, I’m beginning to learn. As I bid him goodbye I wonder whether I’ve really learnt anything more about the mysterious Mr Wynd. He certainly is a curious, curious man indeed.