Rhode Island Artscape: Finding Brown's Lost Museum

Aug 28, 2014

In the 1800s, Brown University boasted an impressive natural history museum, curated by one John Whipple Potter Jenks. But 100 years later, the museum had vanished.  Now a group of students from Brown and RISD have done their best to piece it back together.

For this month’s Rhode Island Artscape, Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender went to find out more about the rebuilding of Brown’s lost museum.

Rhode Island Hall sits on Brown University’s main green.  It’s a beautiful white building from the 1840’s.  Inside, the first floor is clean and open, like an art gallery without much art.  But more than a century ago, this building was crammed with stuff.

“Animal skeletons, biological remains, taxidermy, a lot of taxidermy, and then different artifacts from different continents, Africa, Asia, South America,” said Kate Duffy.

She’s a PhD student at Brown University.  The building is the site of what was once called the Jenks Museum of Natural History.  For its curator John Whipple Potter Jenks. His museum held about fifty thousand objects, much of them were of his own creation.

“Yes, he was a very skilled taxidermist. So he collected a lot of animals, particularly around New England, as well as Florida where he did a lot of collecting trips,” said Duffy.

Jenks was a field naturalist, sort-of a pre-ecologist of the time. He first came to Brown at the age of 15, getting his undergraduate degree in 1838. He worked manual labor during his years at school, and couldn’t even afford to eat at the dining hall.  After teaching at a private school for several decades in Massachusetts, he returned to Brown in 1871 to set up the museum.

“When he comes back there’s still that lower status, because he doesn’t have a PhD and so he wasn’t ranking as highly as the other professors.  He didn’t have that level of prestige or that privileged background that others at Brown might have had,” said Duffy.

But Jenks did have a devoted following of students.

“In fact one of his former students actually wrote a few articles about him right after his death remembering him as a great storyteller, a kind of rugged man, who’d had a lot of adventures, and interesting things to say, and someone who really took care with his students,” said Duffy.

And Jenks especially enjoyed sharing his love for taxidermy.  To him, it wasn’t just stuffing dead animals.

“He saw this as a hobby, but also a way to appreciate nature. He was a very devout religious person, and this had kind of spiritual connotations for him as a way to understand the world, and to understand God’s creations,” said Duffy.

But this belief didn’t quite mesh with the other school of scientific thought gaining traction at the time.

“Well he actually rejected Darwin’s ideas.  He did not believe in evolution, and that’s part of the reason why his museum became outmoded,” said Duffy.

Jenks remained at Brown until his death, on the steps of his own museum.

“It was here in September of 1894 that John Whipple Potter Jenks, returning from lunch collapses and dies.

He dies of arsenic poisoning. A typical side effect of taxidermy in the day.

“They had a big memorial service for him, and if you see his tombstone it says something like, his museum will be his abiding monument.  But of course his museum was rather short lived,” said Duffy.

Without anyone invested in the museum, it fell into disrepair.  Then a fire destroys many of the specimens.

“But the real blow comes in 1945, when the biologists take a bunch of the specimens that had been packed up, and they put them and more than 90 different truckloads to the Seekonk River and just leave them there,” said Duffy.

It was the atomic age.  Stuffed birds and fragments of skulls were no longer considered the cutting edge of science, which was changing rapidly at the time. And for the next sixty years Jenks and his museum were forgotten; turning up in the occasional items found in attics and basements around the school. 

Then last year a group of graduate students took on the project to rebuild the Jenks museum with its few remaining pieces. Now on one side of Rhode Island Hall, two small rooms, and a large display case are the reimagined museum.

“And so this display that you see right here is full of objects that came out of the Jenks museum,” said Duffy.

It’s a typical glass museum case, five by fifteen feet, and holds dozens of objects.  It’s virtually all that’s left of the 50 thousand original pieces.

They include Native American fishhooks, animal skulls, and a preserved puffer fish.  Duffy shows off three foot-long knives from Africa, which apparently left quite an impact on museum guests in the 1800’s.

“These three knives were described as executioners’ knives.  The Providence Journal claimed that you could still see blood on the knives from when they were used for execution.  I don’t know if that’s really true or if they were just trying to embellish the story,” said Duffy.

Not much is left of the original museum but to the right of the display case is a rendering of what Rhode Island hall may have looked like in the late 1890s.   It’s a room about six by ten feet meticulously constructed to look like Professor Jenk’s office on the day he died.

“And so we have all of these different specimens, and books, and tools of the taxidermist trade like the little glass eyes and his nets.  They’re all kind of gathered and cluttered here together,” said Duffy.

You get a sense of who he was by what could have be found in his office.

“You see a giant bible on the desk that represents his very pious religious views.  There’s also a few hidden messages, for example there’s a volume of Darwin that’s under a chamber pot,” said Duffy.

Next to the recreated office, there is a room simply titled museum storage, that’s the third portion of the exhibit.  The room is lined with shelves holding than ninety sculptures created by local artists representing some of the lost museum pieces.

All the objects are painted white.

“These are the ghosts of the objects,” said Steven Lubar, the professor that headed up the Jenks museum project.

“So you can imagine these things once were here.  The real thing, the real butterfly, the real bird.  They’re now here reimagined by artists as a way of remembering what’s been lost,” said Lubar.

All of this the rediscovered display, the ghost museum, the recreated office, begs the question, What would Jenks think of all this?

“I think he would have been pleased, I think he would have been delighted that more than 100 years after his death people are talking about him and not only that they’re learning something about museums, they’re learning something about the natural world, and collecting,” said Lubar.

But Lubar said his real legacy may have been the students he taught, and, in a way, Jenks is teaching us once again.