Legacy

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We are gathered here today to remember John Whipple Potter Jenks, and the museum he created. It is fitting that we do so, for it was important to him that he be remembered, that his memory and his work live on after him. Jenks was, after all, a taxidermist, and a museum curator, two professions devoted to stopping time, to making the ephemeral live forever. He cared about his legacy. He wrote an autobiography of more than a half million words. His son gave Brown a portrait, tagged with how he wanted to be remembered: “Founder of These Museums.” His tombstone is explicitly about legacy: “This museum, the fruit of his labor, will be his abiding monument.”Image

Jenks created three museums. At the Peirce Academy, in Middleborough, where he was headmaster, he built “a Museum superior to that of any academy in New England, and which attracted the attention of men of science,” which “cost him an outlay of thousands of dollars, besides an infinite amount of time and labor.”

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At the Oak Lodge, in Florida, where he spent the winters of his old age, he built a museum displaying over one hundred birds, a panther, and “numerous smaller ‘Varmint.’” Image

And, of course, his remarkable museum at Brown, named after him when, unable to find donors, he supported it out of his own pocket. But none of these museums survive. None is his abiding monument. Indeed, as far as we know, none of his taxidermy survives. So what is his legacy? How is he remembered? What does survive? Image

One way that professors live on is through the knowledge they create, the effect that knowledge has. Jenks published on a few scientific articles. His essay on the food of the robins, we are told, not only had a practical effect, helping to save the songbirds of Massachusetts, but “has often been quoted as an authority upon the subject of which it treats.” Image

But Jenks, as his memoirist acknowledges, was not famous for his science: “his life work as a scientist was that of a collector.” And indeed, he collected not just for his own museums, but for what remain two of the most important museums in the country. Jenks sent 157 small mammals to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology: 47 meadow voles and 23 northern short-tailed shrews. But alas: all are gone, discarded or lost. He also sent about 300 small mammals – shrews, voles and mice, mostly – to the Smithsonian. Most of them seem to still be there, except for 81 northern white-footed mice that were transferred to Harvard. Very few of his collections were published. But still: we might think of a few hundred rodent skins and skulls, and a few bird eggs, resting secure in deep storage, saved forever to answer some unknown future research question, as part of Jenks’ legacy. Image But neither science nor material things – museums, collections – provide the legacy Jenks might have hoped for. And so we might look to a different kind of legacy: the knowledge he spread. Jenks was a very good popularize of science. His Popular Zoology went through many printings – the Chautauqua Institute alone bought 30,000 copies– and shaped many minds. His writings on taxidermy, and his work as a judge of taxidermy competitions, improved that practice, and encouraged a wide audience to look more deeply at Nature. “By his energy, patience, and self-sacrifice for the advancement of the taxidermic art, he has earned the sincere thanks of every taxidermist and every admirer of good taxidermic work,” the Society of American Taxidermists noted in 1884. Image

But it is his work at Pierce Academy, as teacher and headmaster, and especially, here at Brown, as professor, that we might find Jenks’ true legacy. Jenks was an inspiring teacher. His tombstone calls him “A Teacher of rare efficiency.” He was, his memoirist wrote, a “popular and instructive lecturer, and his services as such were in request by schools, academies and societies.” Jenks made nature come alive. “I always illustrated the skeleton when I could, but never left it un-clothed with Nature’s outward adornments,” was how he described his style. The students who joined his taxidermy club certainly seemed to have fond memories, judging from their yearbook entry. Image Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who went on to become president of the University of California, vividly remembered Jenks’ teaching at Brown. “I received an all around liberal education which included not only certain knowledge of Sophocles but a knowledge of the subdivisions, uses and history of a cow” – that last part was Jenks’ responsibility. Jenks, Wheeler remembered, “was always pedagogical, if he was nothing else.” He continued: “In that course of study in taxidermy I learned a great deal of pedagogy, the moderate and slow unfolding of a subject in connection with the use that it is to be put to.” Image

Jenks had a few students who went on to do important work in natural history and science, some following in his tradition as great popularizes. Hermon C. Bumpus became the first director of the American Museum of Natural History. Dallas Lore Sharp, his final student, wrote dozens of absolutely delightful books of natural history. But it is not just these few students who went on to fame who are Jenks’ legacy. Dozens of students each year, over the course of decades, encountered Professor Jenks in classes, in taxidermy workshops, and by visiting his museum. They learned not only biology, or zoology, or agriculture, but also to look closely at Nature, to appreciate the world around them in a new way. Indeed, it is his students who are his legacy – truly, any teacher’s legacy. And that legacy continues with this exhibition. The Fellows of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums – students from Brown and RISD – have devoted much of this last year to studying the history of the Jenks Museum; to reading Jenks’ letters and that half-million word autobiography; to cruising flea markets for the right materials to recreate Jenks’ office; to arranging loans and working with artists and cabinet-makers and artifact movers; to working out schedules and budgets; to doing all of the things that have made this remarkable exhibition and catalog and program possible. I would like to acknowledge them now:

  • Raina Belleau
  • Lily Benedict
  • Elizabeth Crawford
  • Kathrinne Duffy
  • Layla Ehsan
  • Sophia LaCava-Bohanan
  • Kristen Orr
  • Jessica Palinski
  • Rebecca Soules
  • Jamie Topper

They are also John Whipple Potter Jenks’ students, and his legacy, for a new century. I am enormously proud to have had the opportunity to work with them. And Professor Jenks would be, too. Image

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One thought on “Legacy

  1. Pingback: Jenks Society for Lost Museums | On public humanities

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