Foray in the Field: A Jenks Museum Trip to Harvard MCZ

View of the Great Mammal Hall at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology from the second floor.

View of the Great Mammal Hall from the second floor.

In 1999 The Boston Phoenix ran a story titled “Best Freak Show (Other than the Subway),” a short piece about Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Despite the implications of this title, the Museum was created in all seriousness by Louis Agassiz (ag-uh-see for the phonetically inclined), a Swiss scholar of biology and geology and an innovator of all things natural history. According to their website, the MCZ was founded in 1859 and “established and served as a training ground for professional zoologists and influenced many budding US museums through this new generation.”

Louis Agassiz in front of a chalkboard, circa 1872 (courtesy of Harvard University).

Louis Agassiz in front of a chalkboard, circa 1872 (courtesy of Harvard University).

Despite Louis Agassiz’s lack of impressive beard, he and John Whipple Potter Jenks (of the Jenks Museum) met and developed a friendly working relationship through their membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Largely influenced by Agassiz’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and his friendship with its founder, in 1871 Jenks wrote an impassioned letter to Professor Caswell, then President of Brown University that stated, “For while the college is one of the oldest institutions in the country, there is no one half as old that has not better facilities for illustrating any branch of Natural Science, and I am positively ashamed of my Alma Mater!” And the rest is Jenks Museum history.

Given the close relationship between Agassiz and Jenks, the similar timeframe in which their two museums were founded, and the fact that the Jenks Museum now exists only in fragments and photographs, the MCZ seemed an excellent source of inspiration regarding the future direction of the Jenks Museum Project.

One of Harvard MCZ's exemplary specimens.

One of Harvard MCZ’s exemplary specimens.

Fortunately, the MCZ didn’t disappoint. In fact, it proved to be a whirlwind of instructive incidents, towering taxidermy, beetles, bones, and basements, not to mention more than enough inspiration to go around. Below are some photographic highlights, complete with helpful captions reminiscing about the trip.

(Unless otherwise credited, photographs courtesy of Jessica Palinski)


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