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Digging in the dust

Exploring John Jenks's "Lost" Museum at Brown
By GREG COOK  |  September 3, 2014

WORK TO DO A recreation of Jenks's taxidermy office.

John Whipple Potter Jenks, a Brown University professor and the creator of the Jenks Museum of Natural History and Anthropology inside Rhode Island Hall on the school’s Main Green, had eaten and was returning to work one day in September 1894, when he “was seized by heart failure, and fell prostrate at the foot of the stairs leading to the Museum,” according to a memorial speech.

Within two decades, Brown began to dismantle his collection of more than 50,000 taxidermied critters and artifacts from (mostly) nonwhite cultures. Some went to other museums, some were packed away. In the 1940s, many truckloads were driven to a dump. And Jenks himself was forgotten.

Well, some people remembered. And occasionally the odd, sad tale of the lost museum was told in some Brown publication. So one day, not that long ago, Brown professor Steven Lubar mentioned it to some graduate students. And they came up with the idea to recreate the museum — with help from Lubar and an artist they invited, Mark Dion.

So now in the lobby of the very building where the Jenks Museum once educated and fascinated visitors, a wall offers a painted portrait of a white-haired, white-bearded Jenks. Below are cases displaying a Fijian club, “poisoned arrows for the Brazil blow-gun,” pelican eggs, a mammoth tooth, “execution knives,” “Chinese binding shoes,” an olive-backed thrush, hornbill skulls, terns, Seminole moccasins, shark eggs, a crocodile jaw, braided human hair, and a taxidermied mouse.

OLD IS NEW The "storage" room.
A room nearby labeled “J.W.P. Jenks Naturalist” imagines what his office might have been like — a cluttered taxidermy lab with an old chair, tables and shelves overflowing with stuffed ducks, dried starfish, horseshoe crab shells, books, and nets. A “museum storage” room across the hall offers shelves stacked with pots, stuffed birds, a deer head, a bust of the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha, weapons, a rhino horn — all new creations by artists and others and all painted white.

“Friends, cast your eyes on these shattered remnants and know that all things turn to dust,” reads a banner for the “Lost Museum,” which is on view at 60 George St through May 2015.

The display prompts morbid fascination, the melancholy of ruins, and even laughs (see the “Pomeranian” tagged J14.019.01 and attributed to Ishiah White, which is a fluffy white toy stuffed animal with obstinate, black felt eyes). It’s also troubling. Paging through a “Brief Guide to the Museum” and, this team of some 10 Brown and RISD students seems fascinated by museums and curators and preserving stuff — but they don’t ask what do we as a society preserve and why.

Jenks was a Brown graduate who spent much of his career reviving a school in Massachusetts. He was a God-fearing creationist who co-authored a textbook, Popular Zoology. To (successfully) save robins from a Massachusetts politician who wanted to encourage their hunting because he believed they were ruining his garden, the story goes, Jenks killed robins daily for months, opened their stomachs, and wrote up what he found.

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