by KATE DUFFY, Antiquarian & Keeper of Jenksiana
This is the story of seashells found, found, and found again.
Heaps of shells poured into the Jenks Museum. Conchological specimens numbered more than 4,000 in 1872, the second year of the museum’s existence. Thousands more appeared in the years to follow.
Collectors donated loads, and even the Smithsonian Institution chipped in “nearly two hundred species of California shells.”
When J.W.P. Jenks’ health started to decline in 1886, he blamed the time he spent cataloguing shells:
The inducing cause of my trouble I attribute to sitting in a damp basement room of the Museum building from 6 to 8 hours per day for four months with no carpet or rug on the floor or cellar beneath it, while I was sorting and labeling some thousands of shells that had been presented to the Museum… For 15 years I had occupied the room more or less daily, but never before steadily day to day, without moving about.
Jenks finally died at his post in 1894. Afterward the whole museum collection fragmented and decayed. The bulk of it ended up in a dump by the Seekonk River. But various people over the years salvaged bits and pieces of it, preventing complete destruction.
One of these people was a man named John Lineweaver. At Brown in the 1960s, he noticed shells and other specimens and artifacts being hauled away from a building on campus. Some of the objects had old, handwritten labels. He saved what he could — four or five boxes worth.*
[* We may have more to share regarding John Lineweaver & the Jenks collection in the future, but for now, the story of the shells continues…]
Decades later Mr. Lineweaver read about the Jenks Society’s work in the New York Times. He got in touch and mentioned that he had donated the seashells he had found at Brown to the Whaling Museum & Education Center at Cold Spring Harbor, on Long Island.
Staff at the Whaling Museum kindly sent us pictures of many of the shells donated by Mr. Lineweaver. While the shells do not have Jenks labels, circumstantial evidence suggests that they came from Jenks Museum.
Leah Master, museum educator, described how the Whaling Museum now employs the shells:
We use shells quite often in our educational programs. We love to provide hands-on learning experiences for children, families, and seniors who come to our museum. We also bring shells with us on lots of outreaches in libraries and other educational institutions… The concept of animals having lived inside of such beautiful artifacts is an interesting one for children to grasp. The Jenks shells allow us to tell the stories of ocean animals in a fun and accessible way.
Conchology is still at work in the world! We are pleased to have found these shells — which perhaps passed through Jenks’ hands more than a hundred years ago — put to worthy use.
Many thanks to John Lineweaver and to Leah Master at the Whaling Museum for sharing information about the shells with the Jenks Society.