The Jenks Museum (conceived in 1871) has long drawn local interest, particularly since its dramatic closure less than fifty years after opening its doors. According to a 1934 issue of The Providence Bulletin “The Brown Museum… is a feature of the college equipment which has vanished without being missed, an illustration of how times and college customs change.”
Interest in the museum’s history and vanishing isn’t distinct to local papers. Over the years, numerous Brown students have picked up the subject of the misplaced museum, their interest fueled by the many rumors circling the curious tale. One such student, Public Humanities alumna Annie Johnson, opens her retelling in the spring of 1962 when a wrecking ball set to demolish Van Wickle Hall revealed an attic full of spears, pottery, and other strange objects not usually present for demolition. It was later discovered that these objects belonged to the Jenks Museum collection, which was partially dispersed between the Roger Williams Park Museum, RISD Museum, Wellesley College, and Phillips Academy Andover, some time after the curator (John Whipple Potter Jenks) died literally on the steps of the museum. Due to a supposed lack of storage, large amounts of objects were also discarded. According to former biology professor J. Walter Wilson, “Brown University owned a dump on the banks of the Seakonk River. This seemed a suitable storage place and there they are: 92 truckloads of them.”
When a story contains names like “John Whipple Potter Jenks” and phrases like “Curator dead on the museum steps!” and “Collection dumped in the river!” who could honestly resist? Certainly not us. In 2013, a group of Public Humanities students working on a separate project with Providence’s Museum of Natural history picked up on the rumors of Brown’s own short-lived museum and, like many before them, were enthralled. As the research solidified, the students approached acclaimed contemporary artist Mark Dion to take the project to the next level.
In the spring, Dion will collaborate with students to creatively re-imagine and re-construct the Jenks Museum of Natural History and Anthropology. In the meantime, students involved in the project have formed committees to research and organize materials surrounding the project, raise funding for the planned exhibition, and document their progress through social media.
In the course of this research and documentation, students from the Public Humanities program teamed up with Archaeology students to track down the lost casts from the Gallery of Classical Antiquity in the hopes of discovering additional pieces from the Jenks Collection. According to Sue Alcock of the archaeology department, casts of a variety of sculptures were stashed in the basement of the Poli Sci building. Armed with flashlights and a camera, we ventured across campus to investigate.
Upon our arrival, we were warned that we would be entering a “scary basement” where people don’t like to go alone. Luckily for us, the basement turned out to be more wondrous than scary. Complete with crumbling plaster and exposed lightbulbs (no flashlights necessary), our efforts were rewarded with a collection of plaster casts as well as a group of very large framed photographs. Unfortunately, the search didn’t yield any of the missing Jenks artifacts, and like The Providence Bulletin we’re left wondering “where the stuffed giraffe got to.”
(Unless otherwise credited, photographs courtesy of Jessica Palinski)