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The Lost Jenks Museum of Natural History Makes a Brief Return to Brown University

In 1945, Brown University threw away a natural history museum…literally.  92 truckloads of artifacts and specimens were transported to a University dump on the banks of the Seekonk River and discarded; dealing a coup de grace to the Jenks Museum of Natural History.

Portrait of John Whipple Potter Jenks.  Image: Brown University.
Portrait of John Whipple Potter Jenks. Image: Brown University.

Founded in 1871, the museum was the almost single-handed labor of John Whipple Potter Jenks, a Brown alumnus.  After graduating from Brown, Jenks took over the floundering Pierce Academy in Middleborough, Massachusetts (an institution which had been founded by his wife’s grandfather.)

During his tenure, he built a display cabinet and filled it with plant and animal specimens in an effort to bolster the school’s natural science curriculum.  Eventually, Jenks would cultivate an extensive collection and his efforts, coupled with his naturalist disposition, led him to contact his alma mater in 1871 in an effort to correct what he perceived as a Browns’ disturbing lack of interest in the natural sciences.

While it is one of the oldest Institutions in the country, there is not one hardly half as old that has not better facilities for illustrating any branch of Natural Science and I am positively ashamed of my Alma Mater. – John Whipple Potter Jenks in a letter to Brown University (1871)

The University agreed to Jenks proposal, but was unable to move forward due to a lack of funding.  Jenks would not be deterred and agreed to furnish the majority of museum at his own expense.  The University subsequently raised just enough money for a meager salary, allocated a space for the museum in Rhode Island Hall, and Jenks set to work.

The original Jenks Museum (date unknown)
The original Jenks Museum (date unknown) Photo: Brown University

The museum was very much a one-man-show with Jenks simultaneously serving as curator, taxidermist, custodian, fabricator, etc.  Reports from his colleagues suggest that it wasn’t uncommon for Jenks to be working in his museum from 7AM to 11PM and his dogged efforts certainly paid off.  Jenks would eventually pack the space from wall to wall with cases brimming with all manner of natural specimen.  Totaling 50,000 items, this was a genuinely remarkable program and it was likely an impressive and meaningful centerpiece for Brown’s students of the natural sciences.

Unfortunately, as many would suspect, Jenks was the mastic that kept the program together and on September 26, 1894 the museum suffered a tremendous loss.  After enjoying a lunch with some friends, Jenks returned to his beloved museum and suddenly collapsed on the front steps.  Witnesses say he died instantly and it is presumed that he suffered a massive and catastrophic heart attack.

Without Jenks, the museum gradually fell into disarray during years of mismanagement and disaster.  By 1915, the University elected to close its doors for good and stored the specimens in a nearby building until 1945 when it was decided to distribute a small number of the specimens and artifacts to other museum collections and to discard the rest in a University landfill.  By all measures and expectations, that was the end of the Jenks Museum, yet in an unanticipated twist of fate, the museum is being partially resurrected by a group of students, professors, and artists calling themselves The Jenks Society for Lost Museums.

Recreation of Jenks' office for the Lost Museum exhibition.  Photo: Brown University
Recreation of Jenks’ office for the Lost Museum exhibition. Photo: Brown University

The Society spent the past year tracking down the fragmentary remnants of the collection’s surviving specimens and artifacts in order to create a three-part installation entitled, ‘The Lost Museum‘.  According to the Society, the installation “re-imagines the office of the museum’s founder, showcases the remaining fragments of the collection, and conjures the ghosts of artifacts once found in the museum back into existence.”  Of course, much of the collection was destroyed by the University years ago so the Society worked with over 80 artists to create replicas of missing specimens or artifacts in ghostly white tones.

Replicas of lost specimens and artifacts represented in ghostly white.
Replicas of lost specimens and artifacts represented in ghostly white.

Housed in Rhode Island Hall, the home of the original Jenks Museum, this exhibition serves as an intriguing remnant of what was genuinely a tragic loss for Brown University and also serves, in the words of project advisor Steve Lubar, as a demonstration of “what happens when museums and natural history objects disappear.

And you thought museums were forever.

 The Lost Museum will be on display in Rhode Island Hall on the Brown University campus, 60 George Street, the Jenks Museum’s original home, through May 2015.  Hours are currently 9AM – 4PM.  You can also following the Jenks Society on Twitter @JenksMuseum.


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