Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Lost museum

Felled by the arsenic used in his taxidermy, Brown University faculty member John Whipple Potter Jenks died in 1894 on the steps of the natural history museum he had founded on campus 23 years earlier. Because he did not believe in evolution, Jenks had become an anachronism to his younger colleagues and his museum soon fell into disarray. It was shuttered in 1915, and in 1945 most of the stored objects – 92 truckloads – were hauled unceremonially to the Seekonk River dump. Recently, a group of graduate students decided to resurrect and display some of the vanished objects. They received guidance from a faculty advisor and sought the help of Mark Dion, who became artist in residence during creation of the installation in the building that had housed the original museum. Because the accession logs had been destroyed in a fire, the rest of their research relied on photographs, descriptions, and the labels that had been used to describe the long-gone specimens. The resulting exhibit includes a recreation of Jenks’s office, as many of the original objects as they could find in other departments at Brown, and 88 sculptures by some 60 artists to stand in for the vanished museum objects, all of them painted white to unify them and symbolize their ghostly nature (IMAGE ABOVE). Student Lily Benedict says of the project, You have a museum that is so organized and classified, and then it decays and random pieces of it get saved by chance, There’s a surreal quality to what’s left.”

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