Jenks’s Office

Guest Post By STEVE LUBAR

One part of our installation will be a re-creation of Jenks’s office at the museum. There are many interesting questions about the nature of this recreation. Is it a period room? A stage set? Is it designed to capture an important moment in Jenks’s life? Does it capture not only a physical setting, but also an emotional one? Does it help us understand something of Jenks’s personality as well as his work?

The first step in any re-creation like this is research. What pictures can we find of late-nineteenth century curator’s offices? For questions like this, the history-of-natural-history listserv is ideal. A quick call there (thanks very much to everyone who responded to my inquiry!) and some poking around on websites, brought some fine images.

Secretary Baird's Office at the Smithsonian, 1878

Secretary Baird’s Office at the Smithsonian, 1878. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Curator of Crustaceans, Smithsonian

Curator of Crustaceans, Smithsonian. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

George Brown Goode's office at the Smithsonian

George Brown Goode’s office at the Smithsonian. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

Alexander Agassiz's office at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, about 1902. Courtesy Mayr Library, MCZ.

Alexander Agassiz’s office at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, about 1902. Courtesy Mayr Library, MCZ.

These are grand offices. Cluttered with acquisitions to be processed or examined, but grand, with fine furniture.

Images from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia offered another kind of office, more that of a working scientist:

American paleontologist  Edward Drinker Cope in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, in the 1870s or 80s.

American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, in the 1870s or 80s.

Paleontologist Joseph Leidy Cope in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences,  1870s or 80s.

Paleontologist Joseph Leidy Cope in his office at the Academy of Natural Sciences, 1870s or 80s.

But Jenks was at more a taxidermist than a scientist, really. Perhaps this image, of  Dutch taxidermist and bird photographer Paul Louis Steenhuizen (1870-1940) was closer?

Dutch taxidermist and bird photographer Paul Louis Steenhuizen (1870-1940), mounting a Bonobo in his workshop in the Zoo of the Royal Zoological Society Natura Artis Magistra in Amsterdam, 1918.

Dutch taxidermist and bird photographer Paul Louis Steenhuizen (1870-1940), mounting a Bonobo in his workshop in the Zoo of the Royal Zoological Society Natura Artis Magistra in Amsterdam, 1918.

Or, this, paleontologists at work at the Field Museum?

Elmer S. Riggs and Mr. Klein with fossil rhinoceros skull in Paleontology Lab, Field Museum. Courtesy FIeld Museum website (http://www.flickr.com/photos/field_museum_library/3348871309)

Elmer S. Riggs and Mr. Klein with fossil rhinoceros skull in Paleontology Lab, Field Museum. Courtesy FIeld Museum website (http://www.flickr.com/photos/field_museum_library/3348871309)

Or this image of William Temple Hornaday, chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian, in his workshop?

William Temple Hornaday (center), Taxidermist and Zoo Keeper, Andrew Forney, and another unidentified man, working in the taxidermists' laboratory located in a shed in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.

William Temple Hornaday (center), Taxidermist and Zoo Keeper, Andrew Forney, and another unidentified man, working in the taxidermists’ laboratory located in a shed in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building. Courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Then a colleague forwarded an article written for the Atlantic Monthly in 1935 by Dallas Lore Sharp, Jenks’s student, and an important popular writer on natural history. Sharp lived in the museum, in Jenk’s office, and offers this remarkable description:

“about eight feet wide by fourteen feet long, built like a big packing box, right in the middle of the main museum hall, with a door at one end and a sink and a window at the other. Besides the sink, window, and the door, it was furnished with a bookcase, a chair and a stool, a small table, a workbench in front of the window, a one-burner gas stove, skins, bones, bottles, and wall hung with tools, and a pine board six feet long by two feet wide on.brackets against the wall for a bed. … ”

“The walls of my chamber were crowded with tools, wires, and the thousand other things of the taxidermist and curator. Skins, skeletons, shells, and alcoholic specimens were on the table, a tassel of tiny rattlesnake tails dangled just above my pillow, while outside my door, in the echoing room of the great museum, hung the articulated skeleton of a human being.”

Not at all like those fine Smithsonian or Harvard offices! Indeed, more like the workshop pictured in Henry Alexander’s painting at the de Young Museum:

henry alexander, first lesson (the taxidermist)

Henry Alexander, American, 1860–1894
The First Lesson (The Taxidermist), 1885
Oil on canvas
25 x 34 in. (63.5 x 86.4 cm)
Museum purchase, Mildred Anna Williams Collection
1952.76
de Young Museum, San Francisco

Still much to figure out. But the Sharp description, and the Alexander painting, give us a pretty good idea of the feel of Jenks’s office – or rather, his, office/workshop/home away from home. It also tells us something about the man, about his personality. How to capture that in the reconstruction of a physical space is a project for next semester.

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