The work of the taxidermist, and that of the museum-maker (Jenks was both) is an exercise in creating the illusion of permanence. So when taxidermy decays or museum collections are scattered to the winds, it seems . . . wrong somehow. How could an institution as seemingly permanent as this –
– end up in a dump by the Seekonk River?
Well, not all of it did. But 92 truckloads (the vast majority) of the Jenks Museum specimens are there still, rotting away. Others made their way into different museum collections, or ended up tucked into various corners of Brown University.
The beginning of the decline of the Jenks Museum is hard to pinpoint. From its earliest days, Jenks’ endeavor was plagued with budget problems and a seeming lack of support from the university. Jenks often complained of this in his annual reports to the president and corporation of the university. In an 1881 report, he wrote,
“The chaotic condition of the over-crowded cases will, ere the commencement of another scholastic year, necessitate a suspension of my functions as Curator, unless funds shall be supplied to increase the number of cases, and to purchase jars and alcohol.”
The following year, Jenks followed up,
“Funds were not supplied . . . it became a serious question whether I ought not resign the Curatorship on the ground that the Alumni and friends of the University are not sufficiently interested in the Museum to endow it or even contribute enough to meet its current expenses.”
Jenks was able to continue as curator despite these budget shortages only by putting in funds from his own pocket.
A major turning point in the fate of the museum came in 1894, when Jenks fell dead on the steps of Rhode Island Hall. Following his death, a new permanent curator was never appointed. The Jenks Museum was left in the care of the zoology professors Hermon Carey Bumpus and Albert Davis Mead.
Bumpus and Mead had little interest in maintaining a museum which seemed to them a dusty relic of a bygone era. In his half-hearted request for funds for the museum in 1905, Mead wrote,
“The reasonableness of spending money for the dusting and rearranging of miscellaneous curious of a university junk shop for the gratification of a few straggling sightseers is, we readily admit, not obvious [but it is] easily possible to select and arrange material which would be of very great service in teaching.”
Mead and Bumpus’s primary concern was the establishment of a biological laboratory at Brown, which would allow them to teach modern methods of biological science to a growing class of students. The basement of Rhode Island Hall was outfitted with a small biological laboratory, which soon found itself fighting with the museum for space – and winning. In the words of Hermon Carey Bumpus Jr. –
“A ponderous stuffed walrus, the memorial gift of some early class, was denounced as occupying space that might be better used for a laboratory table. Tradition had no restraining effect, and out went the walrus, along with a striding stuffed giraffe. Dissecting tables were moved into the sanctity of the museum.”
Bumpus campaigned the university for years to build a better laboratory in a more suitably modern building. In 1915, Arnold Biological Laboratory opened as the home of the newly-consolidated Biology department. The Jenks Museum zoology specimens, already diminished, were packed into boxes and moved with the rest of the Biology Department to Arnold Hall. The museum’s anthropology specimens were stored in the basement of Robinson Hall and the attic of Van Wickle Hall. They remained there for years, their condition deteriorating.
In 1945, J. Walter Wilson became chairman of the Biology Department. Wilson proposed to throw away the stored Jenks materials, but the university countered by saying that the material had been donated, and that a ‘suitable storage place’ should be found for them on Brown property. Wilson’s solution – to ‘store’ the materials in the university dump, on a parcel of land Brown owned along the Seekonk River.
As Wilson concluded his written account of the Jenks Museum:
“Sic transit gloria mundi” (’Thus passes the glory of the world’).