In May 2015 I went to the Lost Museum symposium, a conference focused not on the founding or expansion of museums, but on their disappearance and decay. The symposium was organized around the Jenks Museum, a natural history museum at Brown University founded by John Whipple Porter Jenks in the nineteenth century. Though it was popular at the time, the museum’s popularity declined after Jenks’ death (he actually fell down the stairs of the museum and was found at the bottom), and in the mid-twentieth century the collection was dumped in the nearby Seekonk River. 92 trucks of artefacts and specimens (including the walrus in which Jenks was rumoured to have slept) were thrown away.
Over the course of 2014, students in the MA in public humanities at Brown researched the museum, collected as many original artefacts as they could, worked with the artist Mark Dion to recreate Jenks’ office, and built an art installation that included the “ghosts” of the lost artefacts. It was a truly fantastic conference. The papers were great: my favourites were Joanna Ebenstein’s discussion of an upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Morbid Anatomy (which I visited last year) and Maia Wright and Kate Jarboe’s talk about their project “the George Bush Library and Museum Museum.” Essentially, Jarboe made herself the unofficial artist in residence at the George Bush Library and Museum, and created a series of satirical and thought-provoking art works while there. No one questioned her presence, seemingly in part because of her authority as an artist in residence (which of course, she wasn’t – the ruse was maintained solely by her wearing a t-shirt that said “Artist in Residence”). I also enjoyed Andrew Yang’s talk about growing plants from the seeds found in the bellies of birds donated to the Field Museum in Chicago, and Alison Loader’s tale of the raucous battles over the installation of telescopes for tourists in Edinborough in the 19th century.
I found out about the symposium at the last minute, and made a split second decision to go, but I’m so glad that I did. It seems that the future of conferences lies in leaving behind the dry and tiresome presentation of papers and more in these kinds of multi-scalar considerations of themes and ideas. I hope that they’ll have another one – surely there are plenty more lost museums!
A detail from the Rosemary Trockel installation at the Brown University Library
The Jenks Museum installation – objects recovered from other collections (and the corner of a portrait of Jenks himself)