The Lost Museum

Jenks Society for Lost Museums
Providence, RI

Public Humanities graduate students at Brown University re-imagined and resurrected the Jenks Museum, a natural history collection that existed on the university’s campus from 1871 to 1915. Entitled The Lost Museum, this site-specific exhibition intertwines art and the history of science to share the story of J.W.P. Jenks, his museum’s life, and its grim and curious afterlife.

Jenks, a New England naturalist, founded and obsessively curated the museum until he collapsed and perished at his post in 1894. Following his death, the rising generation of scientists at Brown decided to dismantle the museum and dispose of the collection. This exhibit examines the life and death of the museum and its legacy on the Brown campus. More broadly, it explores the ephemerality of museum collections and the transition from natural history to Darwinian experimental biology in the university context.

Beginning in the fall of 2013, the group of ten students calling themselves the Jenks Society for Lost Museums carried out historical research on J.W.P. Jenks, the death and afterlife of the museum, and the story’s historical context.  They then decided to share the story of the Jenks Museum using a period room, a case of historical artifacts, and a display of contemporary art.  The period room represented J.W.P. Jenks’s taxidermy workshop on the day of his death, and contained artifacts that interpret his worldview and interests. The display case contained recovered artifacts from the actual museum in various states of deterioration. The art installation contained replicas of Jenks artifacts contributed by local artisans. The Lost Museum was installed in Rhode Island Hall, the university building that once housed the Jenks Museum.

The Lost Museum surpassed all expectations, as national and international media coverage extended its reach, drawing several thousand visitors, including hundreds who joined the tours guided by students. The exhibit has been featured by the New York Times, Rhode Island Public Radio, the Providence Journal, and the Neues Museum (an Austrian magazine). In February 2015, the project was awarded the Graduate Student Project Award by the National Council on Public History. Through research, collaboration, community engagement, and programming, The Lost Museum creatively presented an almost lost history and exceeded the usual bounds of what a “student project” could be.

Read the article in the Summer 2015 History News — free to download!