The Jenks Museum, named after Brown professor John Whipple Potter Jenks, had been closed in 1915, with most of its collections in natural history sent to the town dump. In 2015, Lubar and his students, along with artist Mark Dion, re-envisioned, re-curated, and reinstalled the museum as “The Lost Museum” exhibit at Brown.
The project inspired a book, in which Lubar, who spent over a quarter-century of his career curating at the Smithsonian’s American Museum of Natural History and others, reflects on the project and on the art of curating in general.
“It was a book I wish I’d had when I was starting as a curator,” says Lubar. “There was not a good book that explained why museums do what they do. The Lost Museum project was the key that helped me figure out how to tell that story in a convincing way.”
Why do museums like the Jenks Museum close? Funding can dry up, priorities change, or the museum fails to keep connected with the public. In teaching public humanities courses at Brown, Lubar thinks a lot about the way art museums need to stay relevant. In the book, he cites the #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson debate on Twitter as one that drew attention to museums doing more than just preserving artifacts.
“#MuseumsRespondtoFerguson was a moment for museums to think about what they can do that’s useful,” Lubar says. “There’s debate within the museum community. On the one hand one can say these are wealthy institutions and they could do very useful things for those communities they’re located in. And yet on the other hand they also have skilled staff, collections…they can work with what makes museums special – their collections, their expertise, their knowledge about engagement can be useful to the community too. It’s an ongoing discussion.”
Listen to the complete interview above then visit the Alumni Association’s Slice of MIT Podcast page on SoundCloud for the full episode archive.