Collections Lost, Collections Found

The Jenks Society for Lost Museums, of Providence, Rhode Island, is comprised of students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, their faculty advisors, and artist Mark Dion. In 2014, the group mounted The Jenks Society Presents: The Lost Museum, an installation at Brown that gave the university’s discarded museum a second life (and attracted the attention of publications like The New York Times in the process). Here, Jenks Society member Jessica Palinski provides a closer look at the group’s ongoing efforts and experiences.

Members of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums (photo courtesy of Jodie Goodnough).

Members of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums (photo courtesy of Jodie Goodnough).

The Jenks Society is an association of artists, scholars, and public humanists united by an interest in Lost Museums. We have a penchant for dressing in all black, wearing accessories with “Jenksian” flair (Victorian insect pins or gilt antler earrings, and at all official outings, a badge bearing the visage of our illustrious namesake) and making mischief wherever we go. One of our favorite questions to answer is, “Is any of this real?”

Most often, this question comes up in response to the installation we put together surrounding Brown University’s lost museums of anthropology and zoology, often simply referred to as the Jenks Museum. It’s a beast of a thing, including three distinct spaces: one to reunite the objects that survived the museum’s dissolution (found in attics and closets and basements, as well as the occasional official collection), another to portray Professor Jenks, the man behind the museum (through a recreated version of his office, as found on the day of his death on the museum’s steps), and a third to explore the ghosts of museum storage (artists’ interpretations of what might have been, had the collection not been burned, drowned, boxed up and borne away). Understandably, people wonder whether the history we’re representing is more than myth.

But the question of reality, of fact or fiction, comes up in relation to almost anything the Jenks Society does: the time we traipsed along the banks of the Seekonk River, seeking the (long gone) dumpsite where 92 truckloads of Jenks Museum specimens were abandoned, or when we attended class in full Victorian mourning garb before rushing off to a memorial service for Professor Jenks (dead 120 years ago); or even whether we actually have a pledge that all inductees to the Society are required to recite.

It is this fine line between the truthful and the tongue-in-cheek that makes being a member of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums such a joy. It is also what makes writing about who we are and what we do such a challenge. The important parts are simple: we are interested in what it means to lose a museum, in both the physical sense and in collective memory, and how re-collecting what was once lost can simultaneously present a memory of the past and hope for the future.

In order to further explore these and other issues raised by our installation, we are hosting a Symposium on Lost Museums at Brown University May 7-8, 2015. The symposium will explore the myriad ways in which museums and museum collections decline, decay, and disappear.

The Afterlife Case, part of The Lost Museum installation (photo courtesy of Jodie Goodnough).

As an association of artists, scholars, and public humanists, we find that the tension between art installation and historical exhibition creates a space where it is possible to explore the lives of the objects that museums collect in unique ways. Of the 2,000-odd Jenks objects that survive, we selected around 80 to display in what we call the Afterlife Case, the central piece of The Lost Museum. Were these objects to be displayed at the museums from which they were borrowed (an unlikely occurrence given their condition), the objects would have required heavy conservation. Because of the Jenks Society’s uncommon position, we were able to display the re-collected artifacts as we found them, many still bathed in the dirt of ages, showing the decay that even their protected position as “museum collections” was unable to halt.

Sheltered behind glass, once again elevated to the status of museum collections on display, these objects comprise a motley crew. Mostly anthropological artifacts with a few natural history specimens interspersed, they are organized in order of decay. It is a strange feeling to walk from one end of the case to another: it is a literal representation of how time changes museum collections. From left to right, things fall apart, decay, disappear entirely (until nothing remains but a tattered label). From right to left, a collection is rescued from obscurity, rebuilt from the labels that allow the reunification of a museum dispersed.

This space, the space most embedded in tradition and history, is at once the most heartbreaking and the most hopeful. While the other spaces allow the Jenks Society to look away, momentarily, from the nature of collections and collecting, the Afterlife Case demands the realization that despite the best efforts of curators and conservators - those who acquire and those who archive -  nothing lasts forever. It is this, more than anything else, that creates the Jenks Society. Because while we say we are united by an interest in lost museums, what really unites is our collaborative ability to participate in a collection’s cycle from lost to found to lost again.