A museum comes back to life, if only for a year.
The final resting place of Brown’s first, and last, natural history museum was the banks of the Seekonk River, where its collections were unceremoniously dumped in 1945. The Museum of Natural History and Anthropology was not a long-lived or well-loved institution. John Whipple Potter Jenks, Class of 1838, persuaded the University to establish the museum in Rhode Island Hall in 1871; he almost singlehandedly populated the display cases with zoological and anthropological specimens from around the world, including thousands of animals he’d stuffed (and, in many cases, hunted) himself.
Jenks also taught taxidermy to Brown students in the building’s basement, and it was likely his regular contact with arsenic, the common preservative of the day, that precipitated his death, at age 75, on the steps of the museum. Without its champion, the museum quickly faded—its specimens divvied up, packed away, and ultimately carted off, in 92 truckloads, to the University dump.
This year a group of Brown and RISD students and faculty, calling themselves the Jenks Society for Lost Museums, revived their namesake’s legacy. Their exhibition, “The Lost Museum,” in Rhode Island Hall through May 2015, comprises three installations: a long case displaying a few original artifacts (only about 10 percent of the collection survived the museum’s diaspora and destruction); a re-imagining of Jenks’s office, based on primary texts; and a storeroom of objects, created by more than 80 artists, all in white, to represent the “ghosts” of the long-lost museum.
Steven Lubar, PhD, professor of American studies and the project’s faculty supervisor, writes in the society’s blog: “Museums promise artifacts eternal life. This installation calls attention to that promise, and calls it a lie, or at least, too simple. … Only art can revive, can re-imagine the lost museum.”