The lost museum

Re-imagining the Jenks Museum at Brown

Something strange has happened in Rhode Island Hall. Something out of time. A new office has appeared. There’s a sign by the door: Room 110. Above that: J.W.P. Jenks, Naturalist.

Odd, to have a naturalist in the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World. Peek into the office: the door’s open. It’s dark, packed full of Victorian furniture and… nature? There’s a duck being taxidermied on a small table in the front. Is that a plate of glass eyes? What odd tools! A cabinet on the wall is full of bottles and jars: Arsenic? Gas light, a Bunsen burner, a field microscope, fossils and specimens of birds and animals and plants. An axe? A gun? Natural history books — why is Darwin on the floor? Engravings of Agassiz and Cuvier framed on the wall.

Across the hall there’s another room. Room 111: Museum Storeroom. This one is as brightly lit as the other is dark, but it’s full of… ghosts? The walls are grey, and grey shelves are filled with… white things? Animals, plants, birds. A spectacular peacock, all white. Animal horns, white. White bugs. Odd anthropological specimens. Some sort of ritual sword? A giant shoe?

A case, further into the building, starts to give some clues. It’s an old case, from the looks of it, the sort that you can still see at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. An odd organization within it, though. Very odd. To the left: Japanese musical instruments, Grand Tour medallions, some odd sticks, bird eggs, African knives… In the middle: taxidermied birds in glass boxes, Chinese shoes… To the right: broken Egyptian amulets, broken bird eggs, a mangled telegraph key, some rather shockingly decayed small animals, bones, a jar of dirt. And all the way at the end: old, fragile, museum artifact labels. Moving from left to right moves from artifacts in good shape to broken things to fragments to… just words describing artifacts.

Those “Life” and “Death” banners tell the sad story.

As do the old labels, all that survives of some of the old artifacts.

The Jenks Society for Lost Museums, a group of Brown public humanities students and RISD students, advised by artist Mark Dion, has reimagined the museum back into Rhode Island Hall. They searched out and re-collected the objects long dispersed, commissioned artists to create the ghosts of some of the objects that disappeared, and re-created Jenks’ office.

Visit Rhode Island Hall to see the Jenks Museum, re-imagined as part of Brown’s 250th anniversary celebration.

Rhode Island Hall, 60 George Street, Providence RI
Monday—Friday 9-4.

Open through May 2015.

More information:

Historical photograph courtesy Brown University Archives. Contemporary photographs courtesy of Jessica Palinsky and Jodie Goodnough

With thanks to the members of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums

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