The Allure of Lost and Found: Research Reflections by a Jenks Society Member

By RACHEL SHIPPS
Williston Hall, courtesy of MHC Archives

Williston Hall, courtesy of MHC Archives

One hundred and five years after this photo was taken in 1891, I stood staring at the waxy brown cast bones of a megatherium, gripping its branch in the time-honored custom. The effect of its height and length was staggering, especially since the ancient sloth was displayed in the back of an empty classroom at Mt. Holyoke College. Williston Hall, the setting for the megatherium in this picture, was long gone.

Natural history collections dwindled in slow compression, by neglect, by active administrative hostility and scientific trend – but they also died by fire. At Amherst, an entire mineralogical collection and numerous records were lost in the burning of Walker Hall, in March 1882. At Mount Holyoke College, Williston Hall met a similar fate on the night of December 22, 1917. Since it was Christmas vacation, few students or staff were on campus, and in an enormous blaze punctuated by colored chemical explosions, the entire building was soon gutted. A few staff and students bravely rushed to save a few books, but could not reach the upper floors for the speed of the flames.[1]

Teaching must continue, and the process of acquiring new casts and fossils began almost at once. It was in the distant year of 1974, however, that a strange discovery prompted all interested parties at Mount Holyoke to reexamine the incident. As is often the case in natural history research, the discovery was bones – but it took place in the cupboards of Safford Hall, on Mount Holyoke’s campus. An accidental student’s inspection of some boxes turned up a disassembled skeleton of a megatherium, the very one that transfixed me in 1996.

Nobody knew how the bones had gotten there, I was told. I certainly didn’t know, but as I stood in the building, one extremely different from everything I knew about buildings from my home in California, I had some ideas. Buying my very first college-ruled notebook, I immediately spat out a quick piece of fiction on this very topic. In this story, there’s a ghost girl who loves science so much that she singlehandedly saves the bones of the megatherium from the fire. While living students are carrying out books in 1917, she is carrying out heavy boxes and placing them safely in Safford Hall (she can fly, which helps with the necessary swiftness). Presumably she was then waiting until 1974 to find a kindred spirit to whom she can reveal their location. But what’s half a century to an ageless ghost and the equally ageless, monumental megatherium?

Just as one Dr. Buckland had noted in the nineteenth century, “his entire frame was an apparatus of colossal mechanism, adapted exactly to the work it had to do.”[2] The work of this extinct mammal, many thousands of years ago, consisted of eating plant matter, and possibly scavenging some meat.[3] It might include defensive combat with predators. In more modern times, however, the well-named “giant beast” functioned as a cornerstone of natural history collections all over the United States. They weren’t quite a dime a dozen, but they were a basic, common building block of natural history collections.

What’s nice about the Mount Holyoke megatherium is how it’s a building block out of step with its time. As Eleanor D. Mason speculated after the 1974 discovery of the bones, it’s completely possible that they were sent from a sympathetic institution, as in the confirmed case of a female ostrich skeleton.[4] The bones were probably not fortuitously placed aside before the fire. The megatherium is probably not a survivor of this lost collection. Yet I was not the only one captivated by the possibilities they represented and not the only one to be irresistibly drawn in to the process of rediscovery. The layers of anthropological meaning on top of those originally assigned by the context of a natural history museum are just as interesting: there are human ghosts at work behind the stories of destruction and salvation of objects. It’s not just artifacts and bones, but also accumulations of choice and work, that the Jenks Society seeks to make visible.

-Rachel Shipps


[1] Eleanor D. Mason ‘19 Remembers the Williston Fire, as written to Irma Rabbino, 1983; Mt. Holyoke College archives. https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hatlas/fires/williston/mason2.htm

[2] The Megatherium, Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing – Room Companion (1851-1854); May 1, 1852; 2, 18; American Periodicals pg 276.

[4] Eleanor D. Mason ‘19 Remembers the Williston Fire, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hatlas/fires/williston/mason2.htm

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