Collections: Herbaria in a Larger Context

1 Jenks Museum sm

The Lost Museum at Brown University

I recently read two books that have gotten me thinking about collectors and collections.  Needless to say, plants are foremost in my mind as “collectables,” but sometimes taking a broader view can lead to new insights.  This seems to have happened to me after reading James Delbourgo’s (2017) Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane and Steven Lubar’s (2017) Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.  Issues about the value of collections, material culture, curation, and the meanings of collected objects circled around in my mind, and it’s these themes I want to explore in this set of posts.

The two collections at the center of these books are very different from each other, to say the least.  Hans Sloane (1660-1753) created one of the most impressive personal collections of all time.  His herbarium in 265 volumes is still extant, but he also amassed a large library as well as ethnological, geological, and zoological items, to say nothing of coins and other “curiosities.”  Sloane was born as the era of cabinets of curiosity was waning and more systematic collection came to the fore.  Delbourgo argues that though Sloane wrote an impressive two-volume Natural History of Jamaica (1707,1725), his most significant legacy as a writer was in the labels and catalogues he produced in an effort to manage his collection.  Objects disconnected from textual information lose a great deal of their value, and this is true of anything from a plant collected by Mark Catesby in the Carolinas (there are many of these in Sloane’s herbarium) to an asbestos purse that Benjamin Franklin sold Sloane when the latter was a 19-year-old visitor to London.

While many items in Sloane’s collection deteriorated or were lost over the years, a great deal of it ended up as the founding collection of the British Museum in London, which eventually morphed into three institutions as the books took up residence in a separate building, the British Library, and the natural history specimens in the Natural History Museum, London.  The collection described in Steven Lubar’s book—the Jenks Museum at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island—had a very different fate.  Founded in 1871, it closed in 1915.  The difference between the two institutions is what makes this juxtaposition so interesting.  It highlights how important not only objects, but management, attendant information, and community are to a collection’s development and survival.

John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-1894) had graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and went on to become headmaster at a boy’s school in Massachusetts.  When he retired in 1871, he moved to Providence, bringing with him a collection of taxidermied birds and mammals.  He convinced the university’s president that the school needed a natural history museum not only as a study collection for students but also as a symbol of its prestige.  After all, Yale and Harvard had such institutions by this time.  Also, Jenks was deeply religious and saw the natural world as an important manifestation of God’s power, thus learning about nature would lead students closer to God, suggesting that collections can be valued for very different reasons.

The problem with Jenks’s collection was that he was not selective.  He collected whatever came his way and whatever collections were donated to Brown.  But as Lubar writes:  “Museum collecting is disciplined collecting, for a larger purpose” (p. 15).  Also, as was not uncommon at the time, Jenks attempted to display everything in the collection, so the exhibit rooms became crowded with, for example, stuffed sharks laid on top of exhibit cases because there was no place else to fit them in.  in addition, he kept few records, the labels often provided limited information, and many of the specimens deteriorated.  Another problem was that Jenks did not work well with others to ensure the continuation of his museum and did little to integrate the collections into the curriculum.  It was not long into the 20th century when the exhibits were put into storage, and in 1945 most of what was left ended up in a dump.

However, Jenks was not completely forgotten.  In the 21st century, a Jenks Society for Lost Museums was founded among students and faculty at Brown and the nearby Rhode Island School of Design.  Lubar, who is a professor at Brown and director of its anthropology museum was involved as was Mark Dion, an artist known for his interpretations of natural history collections.  This group created an installation called The Lost Museum in Brown’s Rhode Island Hall, which had housed the Jenks Museum.  Dion recreated Jenks’s taxidermy workshop, and there was a “Museum Storeroom” with 80 objects, all in white, which represented animals, tools, weapons, and other “curiosities” that had been in the museum, but no longer exist.  The final room exhibited 100 items from the museum that had survived; they were organized by degree of decay, including labels in Jenks’s hand for items that had disappeared.

Both books described here were published in 2017 by Harvard University Press.  They weren’t meant to be coupled, but I think they make a nice set since they both deal with various aspects of collection, curation, preservation, and value, themes explored in the following posts in this series.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.