POST AND PHOTOS BY LILY BENEDICT
Of all the biological materials to survive decades in storage – eggshells?
Recently, Becky Soules and I paid a visit to the Museum of Natural History in Providence to see what remaining Jenks zoology specimens we might find in their collections. We knew that some ethnographic materials had been donated to different institutions in the decades after the Jenks Museum closed. But if any of Jenks’ prized natural history specimens had made their way into other museums’ collections, this seemed like the most likely place.
The Museum of Natural History in Providence itself has a long history – a city-owned institution, its doors opened to the public in 1896. Most of its collections date to the 1880s through 1920s, and were amassed by some of the city’s prominent citizens during Providence’s industrial heyday. So the two museums did overlap – the Providence Museum was on the rise just as the Jenks Museum began its decline (Jenks died in 1894).
Curator Michael Kieron kindly showed us the Museum’s mid-century accession records, in which was recorded the following entry:
10915: ‘Brown University Old Museum. Collection of American and foreign Birds Eggs and Nests. Terrible shape, poorly labelled, dead storage. November 10th, 1944.”
Aha! For whatever reason, despite being in ‘dead storage’ in various university buildings for at least two decades, this small collection from the Jenks Museum had survived and made its way to another natural history museum. Even better, not only had the specimens survived, they had retained their original ‘Museum of Brown University’ (Jenks Museum) labels:
While the specimens might be ‘poorly labelled’ for a natural history museum, their labels proved pretty fascinating for our purposes. Some specimens were attributed to students (‘GW Field, class of ’87’) or faculty (‘Professor Jeffries Wyman’) – but most came from JWP Jenks himself. A few specimens (anhinga and brown pelican eggs) were from Florida, almost certainly from Jenks’ trip that he memorialized in ‘Hunting in Florida in 1874’.
But not all specimens were from Brown students, faculty or alumni. A number were labeled ‘Exchange with JMS’ – James M. Southwick, a partner in a Providence natural history firm in the 1880s. This suggests that Southwick and JWP Jenks were associates, and exchanged specimens between the university museum and the commercial natural history shop. Now here’s where things get a bit confusing and interesting. Southwick ‘s firm was Southwick and Jencks – his partner, Frederick Jencks, was an associate of JWP Jenks, and had accompanied him on his hunting trip to Florida in 1874 (also likely a distant relation, spelling differences notwithstanding).
In 1896, James Southwick left his firm and became the first director of the Providence Museum of Natural History. So the flow of specimens, people, and expertise between the different kinds of institutions – commercial natural history shop, university museum, municipal museum – was fairly free.
For a totally fascinating look into the commercial natural history trade in the 1880’s, see Southwick and Jenks’ publication ‘Random Notes on Natural History’.
But so many other questions arise – why didn’t the Providence Museum take more of the Jenks specimens, when sources suggest that Brown offered to donate them? Why just the eggs, and why 1944?
Some answers, and new questions, from a few old eggshells and their labels.