Arts & Culture

Exhibit to revitalize natural history collection

Jenks Society for Lost Museums to present pre-Darwinist artifacts forgotten by University

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Using the artifacts from the original Jenks Museum of Natural History, Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students and faculty members curated an exhibit to restore these findings to their former glory.

Sharks, a giraffe and Queen Victoria’s Shetland pony were a few of the inhabitants of the Jenks Museum of Natural History, if existing records are to be believed about the anthropology and natural history collection originally located in what is now Rhode Island Hall from 1871 to 1915. One-hundred years later, students and faculty members have banded together to form the Jenks Society for Lost Museums to direct attention to the collection and to John Whipple Potter Jenks 1838, its namesake, founder and curator. 

The Jenks Society for Lost Museums was founded in spring 2013 after Public Humanities Director Steven Lubar mentioned to students that Brown previously had its own natural history museum, said Jessica Palinksi GS, a member of the society. Further research unearthed “a very dramatic paper” by a graduate student on the demolition of Van Winkle Hall, an administrative office building bulldozed to make room for the Rockefeller Library in the 1960s. The paper detailed a surprised construction worker’s discovery of cases of old anthropological and ethnographic artifacts “as the wrecking ball was crashing into the building,” said Palinski. The cases were saved, but forgotten.

Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students and professors interested in biology, public humanities, archaeology and art jumped onto the project, and the fully formed Jenks Society is preparing to open an exhibit with some of the same artifacts that missed obliteration a half-century ago.

With the exhibit, opening May 1 in Rhode Island Hall, “our goal is to resurrect the glory of the Jenks Museum, … illuminate hidden stories … and look at it through a lens of the comedy, tragedy and weirdness that surrounds the whole thing,” Palinski said.

A series of colorful details of the museum’s history piqued the students’ interests. Its quirky past includes the acquisition of a collection of knives that just the day before had cut off 50 heads and the 1894 death of Jenks on his very own museum steps, according to the Jenks Society’s website.

The story began less ominously. In 1870 Jenks told Brown “it needed a museum like all the other universities” and offered to curate it, Lubar said. Jenks’ life-long interest in natural history meant taxidermic animals abounded. The museum also contained anthropological items collected by Brown alums serving as missionaries around the world, Lubar said.

The “pre-Darwinist” museum eschewed an orderly setup for an organization that “was interesting to Jenks and showed that he was a very religious man,” Palinski said. The first floor included taxidermy, skeletons and ethnographic collections, while the upper balcony showed off the Jenks’ prized finds — the aforementioned shark and giraffe, along with other large animals, Palinski said.

By the time of Jenks’ death in 1894, “the museum had become to seem old-fashioned,” with “a new generation of professors coming into Brown more interested in laboratory science than natural history,” Lubar said. The museum shut its doors in 1915, and the collection slowly withered into far-flung corners of the University, until the 1940s, when 92 truckloads of specimens were placed in a local dump, according to the Jenks Society website. The spared remnants found their way into the Roger Williams Natural History Museum, the RISD Museum, the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and Van Winkle Hall, among other locations, Lubar said.

Jenks’ museum will be memorialized in three thematic units: the past, the present and the future, each forming a separate exhibit, Palinski said. The first section will be a recreation of Jenks’ office space in the museum, Palinski said. The present  will contain the artifacts from Jenks’ collection remaining in the hands of the Jenks Society, found mostly in storage at Brown and the Haffenreffer  Museum, Palinski said. The future section features artists’ interpretations of lost artifacts, demonstrating how the museum lives on through the human ability to re-create what was lost, Palinski said.

Mark Dion, professor of visual arts at Columbia, leads the artists, many of whom are local residents or RISD students. A call for submissions yielded upwards of 200 responses, some from as far away as Kansas and Florida, Palinski said.

Splitting up the exhibit into linear sections “freezes this moment in time, as pre-Darwinist natural history was giving way to the modern day science of biology, and it gives us this incredible look at what happens when disciplines change and what happens with these shifts,” Palinski said.

Lubar looks at the exhibit as both a reimagining and a remembrance. “The artists are recreating some of the things that were in the museum, but not as what they were, because they’re gone, but rather as ghosts,” he said. “It’s important to remember our history … and it’s important that the University think about the ways that collections can be useful in education.”

The Jenks Society uses a blog to update followers on the progress of the exhibit, allowing it to expand its audience to the wider Providence community, especially as more and more people become involved in different facets of the project, Palinski said. The blog also serves as a safeguard against the downfall Jenks’ own legacy suffered. “We’re definitely interested in institutional memory, because a great deal of what this story is about is the way the Jenks museum was forgotten,” said Palinski.

That the 100th anniversary of the museum’s closing coincides with Brown’s 250th anniversary is “as much chance as anything,” Lubar said. He attributes the budding interest to perhaps a form of rebellion against the institutional memory bombarding us in our daily lives. “I suppose you could tie it back to the rise of the virtual — once everything is on the Internet, suddenly thinking about real objects gains a new interest,” Lubar said.