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In 1945, workers at Brown University’s biology department were clearing out storage space when they stumbled on a giant trove of natural and ethnographic specimens and artifacts. The collection had belonged to the Jenks Museum of Natural History and Anthropology, founded at the school in 1871 and dismantled in 1915 to make way for new classrooms. Inexplicably, the workers drove 92 truckloads worth of the carefully curated objects to the banks of the Seekonk River, where they unloaded them into a common dump.
Now, the collection has been resurrected from that mire by “The Jenks Society for Lost Museums” — a group of students and professors from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design — with the help of artist Mark Dion. Like previous attempts to reimagine destroyed museums, their three collaborative installations, on view at Rhode Island Hall, recreates parts of the museum while challenging assumptions about permanence in museum work.
Dion seems a natural fit for the project, having made his name as an artist/archeologist/historian/detective (of sorts). In 1999, he combed the muddy banks of the Thames River in front of Tate Modern, turning up a vast miscellany of clay pipes, plastic toys and even a human shinbone that he later displayed in a Wunderkammern, or curiosity cabinet. Last year, he recreated the office of a half-fictitious curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, spinning a tale about anticommunist paranoia in 1950s America. The Lost Museum also centers on a strange character: John Whipple Potter Jenks — the museum’s founder and namesake, a man whose tombstone unfortunately reads, “This museum, the fruit of his labor, will be his abiding monument.”
Poor Jenks. Though he created two other museums, the one at Brown was his crowning achievement. And the taxidermist, teacher and A Popular Zoology author funded much of it with his own pocketbook. In 1876, for example, he spent a small fortune on a Shetland pony that reputedly once belonged to Queen Victoria. By the 1890s, his museum contained more than 50,000 preserved animals, plants, fossils, minerals and other curiosities — most of which were destroyed after his death. Today, none of his museums, nor his countless taxidermy projects (save for a few hundred rodents he sent to the Smithsonian), survive.
It’s fitting that the first part of the exhibition recreates Jenk’s cluttered, messy workshop. Every object in it — tools, starfish, a picture of a cow, copies of Darwin and the Bible, canes — tell a psychological story. They profile a passionate, obsessive collector, hungry not only to understand the natural world around him, but also to impart that knowledge to his students through an expansive teaching collection. He never guessed that later generations wouldn’t value it; that after a massive world war some might be more interested in looking to the future than cataloguing the past.
But that was then. We all know that nostalgia for the past is one of the most recurring sentiments today. Naturally, the second installation contains replicas of Jenks’ discarded, forgotten artifacts, created by 80 different artists and housed in a reimagination of the storeroom where the objects languished for years. Each of these are painted white like ghosts. They include mounted butterflies, stuffed toucans, and fossilized trilobites — creatures that had wildly differing lives of their own before their afterlife at the museum began. They never expected the immortality that arrival in a museum confers; neither were they likely disappointed when the river swallowed them up instead.
Not all of Jenks’ collection suffered that fate, though. The third part of the exhibition features a long case in the lobby containing a few artifacts that survived. Most are too decayed to be included in ordinary museum collections — a fact used to the show’s advantage. Rather than being organized by classification, geography, or chronology, they’re arranged by the extent to which they’ve fallen apart. The best preserved sit at far left; moving to the right, they begin to disintegrate, until all you see are the museum tags hinting at what once was. Ironically, it’s these half-preserved objects that illustrate just how unnatural museum preservation really is — another of man’s countless interventions in nature, in history, in life and death, in time. That museums confer eternal life is the great conceit of museums everywhere. No matter how precious, every book, folio, painting or stuffed pony — from the Bodleian Library to the Louvre —will eventually return to dust. The Lost Museum reminds us to enjoy them while we can.
The Lost Museum will be on display in Rhode Island Hall (Brown University, 60 George Street, Providence, Rhode Island), which was the Jenks Museum’s original home, through May 2015.