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Other People’s Things: On Benjamin Kelley & Morgan Kempthorn’s Mathom House

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The cabinet of curiosities, from the German wunderkammer, was a 16th-century proto-museum. Usually a room in one’s home rather than a piece of furniture, the cabinet of curiosities was often stacked to the rafters with all types of objects: bones and other wonders of the natural world, relics, antiquities, works of art, and so on. These rooms served as a status symbol and an entertainment space for nobles, aristocrats, and members of the burgeoning mercantile class. The rarer the object, the more value it held for the collector seeking to solidify their status as a learned person in the eyes of their guests. While many of these spaces evolved into natural history museums, they were primarily—as the name suggests—places of wonder and imagination: What does the world outside of one’s local 16th-century travel radius look like? What magic lies therein?

Entering the wood-floored room, lined with brightly lit display cabinets and collages of old photographs, on the third floor of Benjamin Kelley and Morgan Kempthorn’s Baltimore home feels a bit like walking into a cabinet of curiosities from centuries past. The room is darkened: the windows are curtained for preservation purposes, the floors are covered with rugs, and there is a velvet rocking chair, all of which creates an almost theatrical sense of intimacy.

“We have a very specific aesthetic for the space,” Kempthorn says. “There’s something really lovely about the moment when you open the door from downstairs and it feels detached from the house, disassociated from everything else. It feels like a portal that you walk through.”

The name they gave the space, Mathom House, comes from a short passage on a long-ago dog-eared page from Lord of the Rings: “The Mathom-house it was called; for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom.”

This gets at what the cultural theorist and video artist Mieke Bal refers to as “the collector’s mindset or the collecting attitude.” In her 1998 essay, “Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting,” Bal explores when exactly a collection becomes a “meaningful sequence” and not just “haphazard purchases or gifts.”

For Kelley and Kempthorn, this meaning resides not just in the objects but in the act of collecting itself. Whether it’s combing a beach for seashells, or visiting flea markets, antique stores, and stamp auctions, the process is always both active and passive: although they are “hunting,” as Kelley describes it, “it’s ephemeral—you don’t know what you’re going to find.”

The couple often structures leisure time around these activities, planning beach trips a few miles from a flea market, for example. Several years ago they traveled to London to go mudlarking, a term for scavenging the banks of the River Thames for fragments of ancient pottery and other treasures. In the Victorian era, mudlarking was an occupation typically resigned to the lowest social classes, and one that entailed rooting through excrement and corpses to find sellable objects. In recent decades, however, metal-detectorists and amateur archaeologists have reclaimed the term. And this practice is not limited to the British Isles: Kelley and Kempthorn have gone mudlarking in the Patapsco, and have even found some interesting artifacts using a metal detector in the tiny backyard of their previous Woodberry home.

 

Kelley and Kempthorn have always been collectors, but in many ways the story of Mathom House is a love story. When they first met, they each had small collections of old photographs, and on one of their first dates, over a decade ago, they purchased a stack together, thus marking the beginning of their joint collection. At the time, Kelley already had “the Bone Cabinet,” a display case filled not only with bones but also birds’ nests, feathers, seashells, fossils, exoskeletons, and other natural history objects.

When they eventually bought a home together, they knew they wanted a dedicated space to house their growing collections, which include but are not limited to: photographs, seashells, automobile emblems (specifically Cadillac hood ornaments), vintage Christmas ornaments, pottery fragments, model trains, stamps, vintage teal ceramics, autograph books, and over 120 teeth. These objects are all found, bought, and gifted; although some of the teeth are friends’ extracted wisdom teeth, Kelley once bought a bag of teeth from an antique store.

As I ascend the creaky stairs to Mathom House on a chilly February morning, I’m confronted by a large horse skull on a knotted wooden pedestal. “Oh, that’s Roy,” Kelley quips. Roy the horse skull was, in a sense, the genesis of Kelley’s collecting practice and was named after a Michigan man who sold a very young Kelley an assortment of random things from his home collection. This practice of naming weaves throughout Mathom House, whose storage and display cabinets are fondly and somewhat enigmatically named after their provenance—the Rochester cabinet, Frenchie, the Hamilton—all with a specific reminder of their past lives. Indeed, Kelley and Kempthorn envision their collecting practice as a “way of embodying memory.”

 

All of the items they’ve collected have their own stories. Kempthorn tells me that they’re drawn to things that have “a residue of a life, whether it’s a thumbprint on a pottery fragment or the patina on an object, how a photograph has aged.”

Some of their collections have personal stories, such as the extensive assortment of vintage Christmas ornaments that Kempthorn says is meant to recreate a sense of her own childhood. But many of these histories are inaccessible, lost to time: the moment when a bird made a nest to house its chicks, the lock of a nameless deceased loved one’s hair placed in a Victorian mourning locket, the barely legible handwriting on the back of a photograph. It’s as if you weren’t supposed to notice it, but for some reason you did. What Kempthorn refers to as the “residue of a life” suggests the notion that these objects could even have spirits—a thought that causes Kelley to muse, “if all of these things have spirits attached to them, then we have an army of spirits around our house!”

The breadth of Mathom House’s various collections and all the tales associated with them bring to mind Walter Benjamin’s description of the collector’s passion as bordering on the “chaos of memories.” But where there is chaos there is also order, and Mathom House is meticulously ordered. Kempthorn jokes that the ordering demarcates the “fine line” between collecting and hoarding. They estimate that the collection totals about 150,000 objects, of which maybe 40 percent is cataloged. The scrupulous system sets Mathom House apart from your average private collection. Take the tens of thousands of photographs dating from the mid-1800s until the 1960s for example. Those that aren’t on display are neatly sorted into archival boxes uniformly labeled with more than sixty categories that range from purely descriptive to poetic: People in Water, Flying Bodies, Dividing Line, Letter from the Porch, The Great Outdoors, Women on Cars, Babies, In the Navy, Photographer Shadow, Bicycles, Nurses, Ghosts, and Ohio Twins, which is a collection that came from an estate sale and includes several hundred photos that follow a set of twins from childhood to college.

The act of collecting requires a phenomenal amount of labor, time, and energy that intersects with their work outside of Mathom House. Kelley, who is a sculptor, built or retrofitted most of the cabinets, and this technical work has helped him in the studio and vice versa.

 

There’s a research component to this connection as well: for his artwork, he says, “I’m studying objects and materials as they exist, as they’re found and as they can be made. So that pursuit of studying objects is very similar.” For Kempthorn, a middle school counselor, the through-line is a little more abstract: both are about “honoring human life and the history that everybody comes with.”

Kelley and Kempthorn have put a lot of thought into what honoring the lives of these inanimate objects means for Mathom House. Opening up your home to the public is a complicated act: how much are you willing to let people into your private world? Where is the line between what is yours and what should belong to a broader public? To date, Mathom House has had one opening, which included a loaned collection of Baltimore-based artist Seth Crawford’s kitschy Mold-A-Ramas. In early 2020, I received a small cardstock invitation to attend this inaugural opening. Looking back after almost two years of living in quasi-solitude, it feels fitting that my last opening was a curated collection of other people’s things.

Kelley and Kempthorn have daydreamed about a post-pandemic future when Mathom House could serve as a research space for other artists, or when they can again show the work of local collectors. In some ways, Mathom House—like all of us—finds itself in a liminal space in the wake of this seemingly endless pandemic. But maybe there’s a lesson here after all: while this time of hibernation might feel like stagnation, it is also a turning-inward. It has given Kelley and Kempthorn a chance to reimagine what Mathom House could be when they can open the doors to artists, writers, friends, and community members again with renewed vision. We could all use a little wonder right now.

 

 

This article originally appeared in print in Issue 13: Collect. If you'd like to read it in print, head to our online shop.

This story is from Issue 13: Collect, available here.

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