- Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present by Steven Lubar
Inside the Lost Museum is a book worth wandering through, much like the capacious institutions whose histories and futures it contemplates. Its title refers to the Jenks Museum of Natural History and Anthropology, founded at Brown University in 1871 by the naturalist and taxidermist John Whipple Potter Jenks. By the time that Jenks died on its steps in 1894, the museum was already a relic of an earlier age of curation. In 1915, Brown closed its doors and dispersed its dead animals, historical curiosities, and ethnographic objects about the university. Much of the collection ended up in a university dump on the banks of a river.
In 2014, Inside the Lost Museum's author, Steven Lubar—a former Chair of the Division of the History of Technology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History—and the artist Mark Dion, and their students at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, formed the Jenks Society for Lost Museums, which re-imagined Jenks's creation as an art installation in its old quarters on Brown's campus. When it opened, visitors peered into three displays, each an aspect of the museum's life and afterlife: a recreation of Jenks's workshop, with traps, nets, birds' nests and a Bible in pride of place; a "Museum Storeroom" containing ghostly white objects crafted by artists—simulacra of the animals, curiosities, and ethnographic objects that had disappeared; and a long glass case containing about one hundred Jenks specimens that had avoided the dustbin, organized by degree of decay, ending in dirt and labels of lost objects. Lubar arranges Inside the Lost Museum similarly, and its nineteen chapters—spread between four sections: Collect, Preserve, Display, and Use—each embark from a moment in the Jenks Museum's reconstructed history to think broadly about the ideals, ethics, and practicalities of what museums do.
I linger upon the conceit of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums because it's a good gauge of whether you too will find pleasure in this book's thoughtful and feeling survey of changing practices of curation in American museums of all sorts, its testament to the beings and objects they have collected, and its selfaware celebration of museums' potential for historical, scientific, and aesthetic consciousness. I learned a terrific amount, and would recommend it for undergraduate and graduate courses in public history and museum studies, and to [End Page 1412] historians broadening their repertoire. Because the cultural, intellectual, and social history of collecting has boomed in recent years, those of us who work on, say, museums of natural history will also find in this book a raft of new references to the many historians and critics of museums of art, technology, and social history whose work Lubar interweaves, and vice versa. If there is a magpie quality to its meditations, it is a condition of its subject's own omnium-gatherum epistemology and the polyphony of critical practices it has lately encouraged. In an age in which so many of us declare ourselves curators, we have met the museum and the museum is us.
Some of us, at least. Inside the Lost Museum is excellent on how debates over organization, aesthetics, storage, classification, conservation, access, money, exhibit flow, labels, and purpose in American museums long reflected white elites' arguments over for whom museums' formal and informal lessons were intended. If this is a social history, it is one that gives "voice to the museum workers who collected those artifacts, created those exhibitions, and made those decisions" (7). Lubar plumbs publications from within the professional curatorial field to show how debates pushed those workers—some of whom could afford not to work, it must be said—to attend to a wider community: collecting materials from the Poor People's Campaign in 1968, for example, or a 1995 sweatshop raid. Inside the Lost Museum also reviews the exclusionary politics implicit in placing turtles, fossils, and the paintings of past masters under the...