#5. Curation and Collecting: Why do we collect?

The featured photo needs introduction. Steven Lubar, a professor of American studies at Brown, as he looks behind the scenes at museums, exploring the way that curators consider what to collect and how to display it. He’ll focus on the story of the Jenks Museum, Brown University’s museum of natural history, anthropology, and relics in the late 1800s, to raise questions about the work of museums do today. Retrieved Feb 13, 2021 from https://www.newbedfordguide.com/event/history-of-brown-universitys-lost-museum-the-jenks-museum

Photo: Brown University,John Whipple Potter Jenks and taxidermy class in front of Brown University. Retrieved Feb 13, 2021 from https://www.providencejournal.com/article/20140222/Entertainment/302229990
Photo: Jessica Palinski, Using the artifacts from the original Jenks Museum of Natural History, Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students and faculty members curated an exhibit to restore these findings to their former glory. Retrieved Feb 13, 2021 from https://www.browndailyherald.com/2014/03/04/exhibit-revitalize-natural-history-collection/

“Museums need both collections and connections. Curators need to collect, and connect.

It’s the combination that give museums their power”

~ (Steven Lubar, 2018).

We are all collectors of something. Are reasons are varied. The Cabinet of Curiosities has become fashionable again allowing for narratives to be told with objects, photos, illustrations and the like. People and Boards have good intentions, but without follow through, laws, and regulations; collections within museums can become disposable in the interim. A museum case that ended sadly for Professor and amateur taxidermist John Whipple Potter Jenks, the founder of Brown University’s museum of natural history provides an example.

Jenks died in 1893. His numerous collections were dismantled bit by bit. The remaining museum collections in 1943 contained eighty-two boxes. Jenks collections were carted off by the truckloads to the university dump (Lubar, 2018). Students who found out about his previous collections decided to see what they could still find. These students scoured other universities, libraries, and museums trying to find some of his original collections. They provided a second life to the Jenks collections. It was reported that his collection consisted of forty-nine specimens at one-time (Pina, 2014). How many early museums have experienced a similar demise? Do you believe this can still happen today?

“But sometimes, we don’t have the things we need to tell the stories we want to tell. “No ideas but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams, but that’s not always true. Sometimes, there are no things for our ideas. More precisely: Sometimes the objects we need to tell stories are lost, stolen, misplaced, unavailable, or just too hard to get and display. How to convey those ideas, tell those stories? … ” (Lubar, 2018).

This begs multiple questions: Should, we examine the ethics of collecting particular items that introduces a subject matter beforehand? Do we need to consult with entities that may be affected by the exhibit? We discussed this last week. Should all museums have cultural liaisons across the board? This includes ethnic groups as well. I think this opens the door to real-time exhibits not wildlife or gardens, but humans who take time to portray the subject matter at hand for a particular time period on a controversial or non-controversial subject. This would be a living interactive exhibit.

I’ve not been to a museum in a while. However, I did see a piece on a documentary where an individual was talking about his experiences in a concentration camp. This was then displayed in a format that was projected onto a screen. This gave the illusion that the individual was talking to you, personally. A museum then could predict what kind of questions would be asked by a visitor and adjust video and audio clips to answer your questions. A visitor could then walk back in time virtually with the speaker/s. This is an awesome way to tell a narrative.

I have an experience that speaks to destroying a collection/s. I had arrived to class early and decided to talk with the Department Chair of Biology. He was upset and decided to show me what had happened in our lab. All the display cabinets made out of oak and their collections had been ripped from the walls. They were thrown in a truck and taken to a dump. He was beyond upset. The entire class was upset upon hearing and seeing the empty walls. The countless specimen’s fauna and flora were gone forever. I asked, who did this and why? Someone higher up in the University system wanted to get rid of the solid oak cabinets and the old specimens to make way for more contemporary cabinets and specimens.To this day, it is a really upsetting experience. He taught us biology and zoology with these collections throughout our semesters.They were used by all the professors.

Respectfully,

Barbara

References

Lubar, S. (2018, Dec,). Exhibiting Absence, Retrieved Feb 13, 2021 from https://lubar.medium.com

Pina, T. (2014, Feb). “Lost’ museum at Brown University gets second life.Retrieved Feb 13, 2021 from https://www.providencejournal.com/article/20140222/Entertainment/302229990

6 Thoughts to “5 # Curation Discussion”

  1. Dylan Debuse

    Barbra,
    your experience with those Oak cabinets pains me just reading it, I cant imagine how incredibly awful that must’ve felt.
    What kinds of things where included in the “new” and “contemporary” cabinets?
    Thanks,
    Dylan DeBuse

    1. Barbara Long

      Good Afternoon Dylan,

      I answered someone else’s question on this above. It was a large finch collection and other birds, bob cats, and flora.

      Respectfully,
      Barbara

  2. Michael Hubert

    Barbara , great read this week. I also feel your pain in reading your experience with the cabinets. I wonder who made the decision and who they talked to in the department? what was put in the new cabinets? and was there any recourse for the actions?
    I also read about Jenks and his collections there was a lot of things that he collected and people could learn from the specimens.

    1. Barbara Long

      Good Afternoon,

      I’m not sure who decided to rip the cabinets out. It was done without the Chairs knowledge. The displays were awesome and very old. The collections consisted of Finches and other bird species. It was detailed and very large. We did have bob cats and flora collections. I moved on to another university and do not know if anything was ever placed in the cabinets other than plastic body parts of the circulatory system.
      Respectfully,
      Barbara

  3. Angela Linn

    Thanks for sharing Barbara, and I love that your quote from Steven Lubar echoes Erin’s post about the power of connecting in museums. The loss of legacy collections is one that many in the museum profession worry about all the time – we hope the work we do will continue to be relevant and meaningful to people of the future. It’s why the decisions to collect are not trivial and must be made with the understanding that the objects will be cared for in perpetuity. But what happens when priorities and values change over time? We’ve seen so far how the definition and primary purpose of museums as institutions shift over time. Museum collections must stay relevant and be useful for the public at the present… which can certainly lead to the deaccessioning and/or disposal of collections, no matter how important or valuable they might have seemed to people in the past. All we can do is fully document WHY we collected things in the first place so those people in the future can understand our rationale.

  4. Tony Thompson

    Okay, wow! I am so shocked and disheartened to hear about your experience with the Biology department’s collection and the destruction of the specimens! Having really taken the time to think about collections over the past few semesters (especially in this class!) it physically pains me to hear about biological specimens being carted off to the dump without thought. I went to a very small community college in Washington before coming to UAF and our biology department had a relatively extensive collection as well. Those were some of the most useful tools to use when learning about biology. For example, when we did a unit on zoological diversity, we had several skulls and other bones that we could examine and use to compare and contrast different types of animals. It was a really great way to learn about evolution. I also remember being able to see their preserved aquatic animal collection at some point and just being fascinated at the ability to see these animals in real life and all at once. I would be devastated to learn that anything happened to that collection!

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